Here’s a true story to begin this review. I once applied for a job covering the literary beat for a publication. Perhaps as an effort to avoid the endless assault of regurgitated/repurposed cover letters thrown into the void by desperate job seekers or to ensure that candidates keep up to date with current literature, the post featured a unique request. “Instead of sending the usual cover letter,” it wrote, “please send us your thoughts on The Goldfinch.”
It was one of those “tell us how you really feel” days and I was brutally frank in my assessment of Donna Tartt’s love-it-or-hate-it bestseller. I didn’t land the interview. However, I got something off my chest since “I survived The Goldfinch” t-shirts were on short supply. (And yes, The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize, but that’s like defending Green Book by saying it won the Oscar.)
Now The Goldfinch is making its way to the big screen. Even a reader who truly loathes the book can’t help but be curious to see how one adapts Tartt’s 800-page behemoth into a two-and-a-half hour film. I’ll give the adaptation this much: it’s better than the book. The Goldfinch, the film, is quick and economical with its language where Tartt is not. The book is a long-winded doorstop of a novel that just doesn’t shut up. Sure, the prose is immaculately written—but there’s just so much of it. I truly envy screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) for having the chance to go through the book with a red pen. I also acknowledge his effort on what must have been an extraordinarily difficult task.
The Goldfinch, the film, might end up being as polarizing as the novel is but I’ll defend it until the end of time (or at last until the end of the festival) because it proves that there isn’t any reason for Tartt’s book to be as long as it is. Little changes in the film, aside from a shift in chronology, and the bird drops a lot of weight that it could afford to lose.
The film opens with young Theo (Wonderstruck‘s Oakes Fegley) recovering in the art museum in the aftermath of a bombing that killed his mom and the attack bookends the film, while images of adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) scrubbing blood out of his clothes in an Amsterdam hotel room open the show. (The book plays the museum attack in full at the beginning, and both instances work thanks to Straughan and director John Crowley’s attention to cinematic space and time.) Time shifts back to the aftermath of the bombing as audiences go alongside Theo as he protects the titular Goldfinch, a priceless 1654 painting that he pinched from the museum while wobbling out from the rubble.
Theo’s neighbour, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), takes him under her wing, albeit reluctantly, when she learns that his mom was killed in the attack. The Barbours’ home is cold and stiff, but the pristinely dressed and perfectly coiffed Kidman provides the most welcoming presence she can. She and Theo get along famously, albeit cautiously, since the stuffy museum-like atmosphere of the Barbours’ home is a perfect fit for the boy’s old soul. Theo loves artwork and antiques, and Mrs. Barbour appreciates the attention since none of her four kids has ever shown much interest in her passion.
One wishes that Mrs. Barbour played a greater role in the adaptation. Kidman’s performance is remarkably reserved and contained as Mrs. Barbour puts on a brave face and shows affection in her own way. The emotional core of the story is arguably between Theo and his new mother figure, and Crowley adds some life-affirming radiance to the film with the tender scenes between Mrs. Barbour and Theo. Whenever the Kidman’s on screen, one feels hints of warmth in an otherwise cold film.
However, this is still The Goldfinch and issues that plague the book bog down the movie. Both Goldfinches feature extended trips to Las Vegas when Theo’s dad (Luke Wilson) shows up with his girlfriend Xandra (a perfectly cast Sarah Paulson) and resumes custody, snatching the boy (and his trust fund) from the Barbours and trucking him to some stillborn housing development in Nevada.
Even while condensing the section to its most basic elements, The Goldfinch loses steam as young Theo befriends his Russian neighbour Boris (Finn Wolfhard in a Timothée Chalamet haircut) and the boys dabble in booze and drugs while Theo survives his sleazy dad and floozy stepmother. There’s about an hour of the film that deals with these Nevada scenes and it serves only to further a plot point that arises late in the third act. The Goldfinch seems to be a clown car stuffed with characters no matter which form it takes.
While problems of exposition diminish both the film and book, the adaptation realizes and improves upon elements of Tartt’s novel that help one see why it’s so beloved. Theo’s passionate care for The Goldfinch painting and his interest in Mrs. Barbour’s art finds a practical outlet in a workshop for refurbishing antiques run by Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), a kind New Yorker who lost his partner in the museum bombing and now acts as the guardian for his orphaned daughter Pippa, whom Theo befriended seconds before the blast.
Wright, like Kidman, is a great presence in the film. His scenes with both Fegley and Elgort breathe with the seasoned wisdom of a performer who knows how to use a prop and embrace its tactility as Hobie runs his hands along pieces of furniture, showing the boy the ropes while observing the nuances and details that distinguish a masterpiece from a fraud. The theme of preservation, fighting for art, culture, family, love, and anything that matters, echoes more strongly in the film’s final chapter as the elder Theo goes to extremes to save The Goldfinch while drawing upon the advice with which Hobie, Mrs. Barbour and his mother instilled within him throughout his ordeal.
Crowley (Brooklyn) draws out strong work from the sprawling ensemble cast as the actors inhabit characters of every size with delicious details, although one wishes that standouts like Kidman and Paulson had even more time on screen. The film also finds a strong asset in the crisp lensing by MVP cinematographer Roger Deakins, while a wildly inconsistent soundtrack features moving musical cues one moment and utterly random tracks the next—who expected The Goldfinch to feature a Pussycat Dolls cover of “Jai Ho”, the theme from Slumdog Millionaire—that make it wildly and hilariously inconsistent. In short, The Goldfinch is a faithful adaption of the popular novel, since there are elements that will amaze you and bits that will infuriate you. One thing is certain: you will definitely have an opinion about it.
The Goldfinch opens theatrically Sept. 13.