“THE GOLDFINCH” TETHERED TO THE LIMITS OF ADAPTATION
A Film Review by Tim Riley
“THE GOLDFINCH” (Rated R) American author Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014 for the 784-page coming-of-age novel “The Goldfinch,” which I did not have time to read before seeing the movie. What’s more, the local bookstore didn’t carry the Cliff’s Notes version.
How to adapt this massive tome into a film story of grief and shame, guilt and obsession, survival and self-invention was left to Academy Award nominee Peter Straughan (the 2011 dramatic thriller “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”).
The center of “The Goldfinch” is the achingly poignant journey of thirteen-year-old Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley), who last saw his mother as she was gliding away from him into another gallery of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The non-lineal recounting of Theo’s anxious passage in life results in the opening scene showing a troubled adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) in a hotel room in Amsterdam facing a personal crisis that suggests his life is on the verge of a possible suicidal ending.
Flashing back to the art museum, young Theo finds his life shattered when a terrorist bomb explodes taking the lives of many visitors, including his mother, while destroying priceless works of art.
For the rest of his life, Theo will be haunted by the traumatic event at the museum, as he and his mom should not have been at the museum that day, resulting in his lifelong feeling of survivor’s guilt.
Theo’s mother had been called to his school because her son had gotten into some trouble, but they were early and it was raining, so they ducked into the famous New York museum to look at Dutch masterpieces.
Dutch painter Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” portrait of a small bird tethered to its perch on display at the museum, happened to the mother’s favorite. Ironically, the painter died in a 1654 gunpowder explosion that also destroyed most of his work.
While Theo’s gaze was caught by pretty redheaded Pippa (Aimee Laurence), his life was spared. The horrific blast created a gray moonscape of choking dust, debris and death, and in the rubble was the painting of the chained bird.
With his dying breath, an elderly gentleman named Blackwell urges Theo to take the priceless artwork of the goldfinch and deliver his ring to his partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) at an antique store.
In Hobie, Theo finds a lifelong mentor who tutors on the fine art of the restoration and dealing of antiques, leading to the adult Theo’s career path that ends up on shaky ground when a slippery art dealer (Denis O’Hare) lodges accusations of forging antiques for sale.
With deadbeat father Larry (Luke Wilson) nowhere in sight, young Theo is placed with the family of one of his school friends, the Barbours, where he forms a bond with Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), who shares his appreciation of art.
The upper-class Barbour family lives on ritzy Park Avenue, with a patriarch (Boyd Gaines) who seemingly cares only about sailing during the summer months in Maine. On the other hand, the stylish, reserved Mrs. Barbour gradually offers Theo tender affection.
Just when Theo is comfortable in his new home, the estranged dad shows up with his floozy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) to take his son to live in a desolate exurb of Las Vegas where surrounding homes are boarded up for foreclosure sales.
Befriended by Russian-born delinquent Boris (Finn Wolfhard), the only boy in the neighborhood, Theo falls into a world of illicit drugs, drinking and smoking, trying to escape a family life marked by his father’s careless disregard and flights of anger.
When tragedy strikes, young Theo decides to flee Sin City, after scraping together enough cash to buy a bus ticket back to New York City, where Hobie is sure to provide shelter.
Reaching adulthood, Theo has held on to the stolen painting, keeping it wrapped in newspaper as a metaphorical reminder of his beloved mother. Yet, the artwork is a secret talisman, which both comforts and torments him.
Meanwhile, Theo achieves financial success as an antiques dealer, dressing fashionably and reconnecting with the Barbour family, and then becoming engaged to Kitsey Barbour (Willa Fitzgerald).
Romantic complications arise when Theo realizes he still has feelings for the now adult Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings), but nothing upends his life more than the chance encounter with adult Boris (Aneurin Barnard) and his ties to the criminal underworld.
Even though lacking familiarity with the source material, I would venture to say that the filmmakers were challenged to distill an expansive story with a lot of characters into a compelling narrative that works for a two and a half hours running time.
And yet, for what seems counterintuitive in regards to the abundance of storylines and potential for prolonged character development, “The Goldfinch” is too often lackluster, plodding and aimless.
Devotees of Donna Tartt’s opus may be curious to see the silver screen adaptation if for no better reason than to contemplate missed opportunities. All things considered, “The Goldfinch” appears to be tethered to its own cinematic limitations.