The Goldfinch is an uneven journey that slips on itself one too many times. Theo is the young protagonist, whose entire world was upended when a terrorist bombing at a NYC museum took his mother’s life and left him mostly unharmed on the outside. His grief and his feelings of guilt sink him. The viewer of the movie is left to bear witness to the story of a motherless child, helpless in our desire to both see him escape from the perils of addiction and our own escape from the dragging pace of the plot.
I had every intention of finishing the novel that The Goldfinch is adapted from when it was first published, but I lost interest. I went back to re-read parts, and found that comparatively, its density is more understandable as a 750-plus page novel. The world of the novel is rich with description, particularly in the museum, and the film mostly succeeds in this part of the film. Two and a half hours is somehow both too much and not enough time for this story, probably because it’s boring to watch and Theo’s flatness is played flatly, by both Ansel Elgort (adult Theo) and Oakes Fegley (young Theo). His trauma is mostly demonstrated through his abuse of the drugs and alcohol fed to him by just about everyone in his life. I didn’t think I’d be able to say I had a hard time sympathizing with a child who went through an immense trauma, but the two actors are more wooden than the antiques sold in the antiques shop where he works.
The movie could be a lot better in some ways. Maybe reduce the extensive character development by way of Theo’s friend Boris (Finn Wolfhard), as that feels like it’s a completely different movie entirely. The energy between them is good, but the plotting is wrong. None of the middle hour works because everyone is bored, except Sarah Paulson, who plays Theo’s stepmother.
Theo encounters life-changing people yet the film develops next to nothing with them, though they all seem deeply affected by him. It would be useful to spend more time developing the relationship between Theo and the New Yorkers who cared for him after his mother’s death. Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Wright are wasted in exchange for extended scenes with Theo staring blankly, as we are given frequent flashbacks to the bombing and his last moments with his mother. His second major familial loss is less a sigh of relief for Theo’s potential freedom and renewal, as it is a relief that he even has the sense to go back to New York, where the adults who legitimately care also be given a bit more to do.
Much of the novel is about seeing, appreciating, and learning about art, but somehow all of that gets blown out the door in favor of bland early 00’s biopic-esque style, or lack thereof. It makes me question who the audience of the movie really is, if not for fans of the novel or lovers of art and movies. This a movie where a character is asked what his favorite piece of music is and they respond, “Beethoven.”
Sometimes the things characters say do not make sense. At one point, toward the end, Kidman’s character says that Theo felt like one of her own children. When was that? He was with her for all of two months at best; and she spent most of that time telling her children that he’s only going to live there for a few weeks. Most of her scenes offer little to tell us who she really is to Theo other than a general caretaker. The final sequence rushes a number of important plot points, too.
Was this film a victim to its edit or its screenplay? Probably both. Maybe I’d feel more strongly than I do if only I’d read more of the novel. Instead, I’m left feeling next to nothing after this movie, and it’s a shame. The story is there, but novel’s complexities may have overwhelmed the final cut. If it did anything, it made me revisit the novel, and that’s always a good thing. The Goldfinch may be best as a novel, where one’s mind can wander down the rabbit holes and be taken in at one’s own pace, rather than be held hostage to a film’s.