‘The Goldfinch’ Review: A Second-Rate Adaptation Better Suited for the Page

Ansel Elgort in 'The Goldfinch' (2019) - source: Warner Bros.

Nothing screams awards season like cashing in on the success of a best-selling, award-winning novel. For every Toronto International Film Festival, there’s another weepy adaptation with a star-studded cast looking to cruise its way into Oscar glory. This year’s entry has arrived in the form of The Goldfinch, a lifeless take on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book that’s so devoid of emotion it’ll have you convinced it’s the first Hollywood movie conceived entirely by robots.

There’s no denying that the pitch of Tartt’s novel alone sounds like it would make for a solid movie: a young boy named Theo (Ansel Elgort as an adult, Oakes Fegley as a child) loses his mother after the two of them are caught in an art museum bombing. In the ensuing confusion, Theo saves Carol Fabritius’s 1654 painting The Goldfinch from the rubble, an act that sets off a decades-long story of lost hope, crime, and redemption. It’s a premise poised for a tug-at-your-heart-strings post-9/11 treatise on grappling with the violent loss of the things we love, the kind of loss that comes to define an entire life. What director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan deliver instead is a droll, cliche awards bait ensemble piece that fails to capture the heart of Tartt’s prose.

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch (2019) – source: Warner Bros.

Much of the blame lies in Straughan’s script and the casting of Ansel Elgort, a combination that seems mismatched from the start. Elgort, who is supposed to be the crux of the film’s emotional development and intrigue, reads Straughan’s stilted lines with the passion of a frat boy emerging from a hangover nap. He fails to match the nuance of the much better Fegley, who at least manages to make Theo feel like an actual, grieving human being and not a machine-generated version of one. He’s not alone in his boredom, as heavy hitters like Jeffrey Wright and Nicole Kidman barely lift an eyebrow as Theo’s reluctant but loving new guardians. There’s no sense of energy from any of the actors save the pair of Finn Wolfhard/Aneurin Barnard as the respective young and old versions of Theo’s cartoonish childhood friend Boris, a Ukrainian immigrant stereotype that doesn’t play much better in the movie than it does in the source material.

This is the doomed fate of numerous actors trying to bring to life characters from literature, and it’s probably the same case for Straughan as well. It’s almost always self-destructive to make a film as wrought with first-person narration as Tartt’s original novel, and Straughan and the cast struggle under the pressure of trying to figure out a way to convey the story differently. Straughan’s script lacks the interior life of Tartt’s prose, giving the actors characters that lack the characterization and detail that fill in the margins of her 800-page brick of a novel. Without that level of introspection, Theo and his problems, from his tortured love for fellow bombing victim Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) to his suffering under his deadbeat father (Luke Wilson) and selfish adoptive mother Xandra (Sarah Paulson), feel less like threads coming together to tell a complete story and more like a grab bag of trendy drama tropes.

Jeffrey Wright and Oakes Fegley in The Goldfinch (2019) – source: Warner Bros.

It doesn’t help that Crowley (who directed the far superior Brooklyn) and even acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins shoot this film with almost no vigor to speak of. This is a boringly styled picture filled with muted browns and hazy shots of dust, the most lively shots often cribbing from Deakins’s work on earlier, much better works. It’s honestly baffling to see such a lavishly produced prestige project shot so lifelessly. You can usually count on these sorts of things to at least look good or be lifted from obscurity by a few notable performances, but this is the kind of film you’ll find yourself forgetting entirely as you’re walking through the theater doors.

That being said, this isn’t quite the disaster that festival audiences have painted it to be. The Goldfinch is boring, pretentious, and lazy for sure, but it’s not some offensive misfire. It’s simply not interesting enough to even be that. The praise of Tartt’s novel was controversial for some, with certain corners of the book world dismissing the novel as an overly sentimental, commercialized footnote in an otherwise great author’s career. Say what you want about that, but at least Tartt’s novel had a way of invigorating its coming-of-age trappings with a real sense of philosophical purpose. It may be spitting out overambitious gibberish, but at least it’s saying something. Crowley’s adaptation barely even tries to open its mouth, the result being a phony play at prestige filmmaking that leaves you yearning for the much better films it’s trying to emulate.

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