The Goldfinch (2019) Movie Review

The Goldfinch is a 2019 American drama film directed by John Crowley and written by Peter Straughan, adapted from the 2013 novel of the same name by Donna Tartt. The film stars Ansel Elgort as a young man whose life is transformed after his mother dies in a terrorist bomb attack at a museum, from which he takes a famous painting called The Goldfinch. Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, and Nicole Kidman appear in supporting roles.

Film rights to the novel were sold to Warner Bros. and RatPac Entertainment with ICM Partners brokering the deal. Two years later, Crowley was hired to direct the film adaptation and Elgort was selected to portray the lead role of Theodore Decker; much of the rest of the cast joined from October 2017 to January 2018. Filming began in New York City in January 2018, before moving to Albuquerque in April 2018 for the rest of production.

The Goldfinch premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and was theatrically released in the United States on September 13, 2019, by Warner Bros. Pictures. The film received generally negative reviews from critics and was a box-office bomb, with estimated losses for the studio as high as $50 million.

Plot

Thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker’s mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In the aftermath of the bombing, Theo takes a painting, The Goldfinch, one of the few remaining paintings by Carel Fabritius and hides it at his apartment. Theo is then placed with the Barbours, the family of his estranged friend Andy, as he has no other relatives in the city and his father has abandoned him.

Theo reconnects with Andy and becomes close to Andy’s mother, Samantha Barbour, who encourages his interest in her antiques and art. After Samantha finds an engraved ring in Theo’s possession, he goes to visit the shop where it came from, Hobart & Blackwell. The shop is run by James “Hobie” Hobart, whose deceased partner Welton “Welty” Blackwell died in the bombing and gave the ring to Theo to return. Welty’s niece, Pippa, was also at the museum and survived the bombing. Hobie allows Theo to visit Pippa, who has serious injuries, and the two bond. Theo begins to visit Hobie regularly, even after Pippa leaves to live with her aunt in Texas.

Theo begins to settle into life with the Barbours and is invited to go on vacation with them as Andy is hinting that his parents are considering adopting him. Before they can, Theo’s estranged and alcoholic father, Larry, newly detoxed, and his girlfriend Xandra arrive to reclaim Theo and relocate him to Las Vegas. One of the few items he takes with him is The Goldfinch painting.

Theo makes a friend, Boris, a Ukrainian immigrant whose father is physically abusive. Boris, who has also lost his mother, introduces Theo to drugs and alcohol. Theo’s father, sliding further into alcoholism and gambling, dies in a car accident. Terrified that Xandra will place him in foster care, Theo decides to return to New York, begging Boris to come with him. Boris promises he will follow Theo, but never does. Theo goes to Hobie, who allows him to live with him.

Eight years after Theo returns to New York City, he runs into Platt, Andy’s older brother. Platt informs Theo that his father was bipolar and that he and Andy were killed in a boating accident during one of his episodes. Theo goes to visit the now sickly Mrs. Barbour and reconnects with Andy’s younger sister Kitsey, who flirts with him.

Theo works selling the antiques that Hobie finds and restores. A disgruntled art dealer accuses Theo of selling a fake, which Theo offers to buy back. However the dealer believes that Theo possesses The Goldfinch painting and is using it as collateral to finance his shop. Theo is shocked that the man has made the connection between him and the painting, but is relieved that his guess as to its whereabouts is wrong as Theo continues to keep the wrapped painting in a storage locker.

Theo becomes engaged to Kitsey, whom he does not love, still harboring a secret love for Pippa, who now lives in London. Theo catches Kitsey cheating on him, but decides to remain engaged due to his love for Mrs. Barbour and Kitsey’s permissive attitude towards his drug habit.

Looking to score pills one day, Theo goes to an unknown bar where he runs into Boris. The two reconnect, with Boris telling Theo that he owes everything to their friendship. Boris apologizes to Theo, which Theo initially believes is for never coming to New York City, but he then realizes is because Boris stole The Goldfinch years ago, after Theo showed it to him during a drug blackout. Ever since, Boris has used it to finance his life of crime. Boris is now no longer in possession of the painting, as a gang of thugs have stolen it. Theo is horrified and runs away from Boris.

At Theo’s engagement party to Kitsey, Boris arrives and tells him he has a plan to recover The Goldfinch. They fly to Amsterdam, where Theo pretends to be a wealthy businessman, and they reclaim the painting. However, the plan goes badly, and Boris is shot. Theo kills a man in self-defense, losing the painting again.

Theo goes to his hotel room and tries to commit suicide, only to be rescued by Boris. Boris tells Theo that, knowing where the painting is, he had a friend call in a tip to the police to recover it. After organizing a raid the police were able to safely recover the painting along with other lost and stolen art including a Rembrandt. Boris argues that perhaps their strange and unwieldy path was all for the greater good and that it is all part of the strange thing called life.

My Personal Thoughts

The Goldfinch tells the highly-realistic story of a young man, Theo, who lives in New York with his  beautiful mother. Theo gets into trouble for smoking at school. Instead of facing the music and the principal, his mother takes him to an art museum instead. Terrorists bomb the museum, Theo’s mother dies. Through plot machinations, he ends up stealing his mother’s favorite painting. By an obscure Dutch master, this is the goldfinch of the title.

It’s not worth recounting the rest of the plot in case you see the movie, which, based on the fact that the only people in the theater when my wife and I saw it were my wife and I and one other person five rows in front of us, you will not. But know that the cast of The Goldfinch includes Ansel Elgort as an adult Theo, Nicole Kidman, as a frosty society dame who nearly adopts Theo, Luke Wilson, as Theo’s gadabout gambler father, who shows up looking for money, and a smoky Sarah Paulson, who plays Luke Wilson’s girlfriend. Also there is Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things and It, rocking a Russian accent, and Jeffrey Wright, as an antiques restorer who takes Theo under his wing.

The name actors all deliver name performances, with the exception of Elgort, who either stares blankly or weeps copiously. He’s one of the least charismatic film stars of our day. During the scenes in Amsterdam, I kept wishing Ansel would fall into the Amstel.

Ansel Elgort is one of the two main problems with The Goldfinch. The other is that the director and screenwriter decided to tell the story non-linearly. Tartt’s novel begins with a little narration from an adult Theo, but then goes fairly straight from there, with almost no flashing back. The film, perhaps in an attempt to get to the awful Ansel Elgort parts sooner, operates the narrative on multiple timelines.

It lingers on minutae early, but doesn’t pay off that detail work later. You don’t see the terrorist bombing, the book’s most gripping and moving set piece, until toward the end, and then only in fragments. The thrilling crime drama that grips the book’s final third flits by in about five minutes, as the director perhaps realized that we were already at the two-and-half hour mark. At that point, we could have used some grit, but instead all we get are violin music and crying. But there’s already plenty of both in The Goldfinch.

This is all very frustrating because despite its hair-pulling structure problems, The Goldfinch is an extremely faithful adaptation of Tartt’s book. All the characters look and act exactly how she described them. The locales are on-point, and beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, including a longish section set in a disturbingly foreclosed housing complex on the edge of Las Vegas. The script even takes time to explain the mechanics of furniture restoration. But not, apparently, to show an exciting chase scene through the streets of Amsterdam.

The Goldfinch falls prey to the Memento effect, or the Interstellar effect, where every movie has to be a puzzle box. Except that The Goldfinch’s puzzle unfolds perfectly the way that Tartt tells it; the way the filmmakers structure the story takes away from the book’s profound emotional impact and plot surprises, leaving us with empty emotion, and no impact. I doubt my dear departed mother would have liked it much. This movie tarnishes my memory of how The Goldfinch, the novel, helped me grieve her tragic death. For that reason, I liked it even less than I might have.

I will rate this 5/10.

Directed byJohn Crowley
Produced by Nina Jacobson Brad Simpson
Screenplay byPeter Straughan
Based onThe Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
Starring Ansel Elgort Oakes Fegley Aneurin Barnard Finn Wolfhard Sarah Paulson Luke Wilson Jeffrey Wright Nicole Kidman
Music byTrevor Gureckis
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Edited byKelley Dixon
Production
company
Amazon Studios Color Force
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date September 8, 2019 (TIFF) September 13, 2019 (United States)
Running time149 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$44–49 million
Box office$9.7 million
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