Opening to an abysmal $2.6 million opening weekend at the box office and receiving a scathing 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, John Crowley’s adaptation of The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s wildly popular 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is a categorical flop and not likely to get much awards traction, but is it actually as awful as the numbers would indicate? Unsurprisingly, the answer is more complex than a simple “yes” or “no,” and defenders and detractors alike would probably concede caveats to their praise and criticism. As someone who finally caught up with the novel recently and was marginally underwhelmed, I found myself occasionally endeared but often perplexed by Crowley’s reconfiguration of Tartt’s sprawling coming-of-age tale.
The Goldfinch tells the story of a young boy who survives a museum bombing that tragically claims the life of his mother. In the dazed aftermath, he steals a painting which forever alters the course of his life. Featuring a stellar cast of heavy hitters, including Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, and Sarah Paulson, and gorgeous cinematography from Roger Deakins, hot on the heels of his Oscar win for Blade Runner 2049, The Goldfinch has plenty of talent behind it, but it’s not enough to compensate for fundamental missteps in the writing and direction.
The novel is nearly 800 pages, spans almost a decade, and features a cavalcade of supporting characters. Consolidating the narrative into a manageable feature film is an understandably tall order, and Peter Straughan’s attempts to stay true to the novel are admirable, but ultimately fatal. Entire passages of dialogue are transplanted directly from the book, which unfortunately proves that often what works on the page doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen. There are so many exchanges filled with awkward pauses and stilted dialogue, and it unintentionally falls into a bizarre, uncomfortable uncanny valley like a Lanthimos film.
Most of the cast is able to combat the material’s inherent weaknesses, especially Wright who is terrific as usual, and Oakes Fegley who’s burdened with carrying the bulk of the film and surprisingly succeeds in imbuing young Theo with a palpable vulnerability. The weakest link by a mile is Finn Wolfhard, who utterly butchers a Ukranian accent and seems lost and unconfident; it’s an atrocious casting choice intended to capitalize on the recent successes of Stranger Things and It, but it ends up ruining one of the novel’s most interesting and lively characters. Thankfully, the Boris-heavy chunk of the film is somewhat offset by Sarah Paulson’s committed and often hilarious turn against type, playing a snarky, gum-smacking narcissist with an acute resentment for our young protagonist.
Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch, photo by Roger Deakins, courtesy of Warner Bros.
Crowley seems like a perfect fit for the material, having made a name for himself as a theatre director before transitioning to film. He’s a director who specializes in performance, leading Saoirse Ronan to a bevy of nominations for his last film Brooklyn, and yet, The Goldfinch feels completely passionless. It’s as if Crowley directs out of a sense of obligation, strictly adhering to the source material, to the film’s detriment. Scenes don’t flow together at all and the bloated 149-minute runtime is exhausting, especially by the third act where the narrative abruptly turns into a crime-thriller (which doesn’t work in the book either, for what it’s worth).
The Goldfinch isn’t entirely disastrous, mostly due to some stand-out performances and a genuinely intriguing story (owed more to Tartt’s rich characterization than Peter Straughan’s near-verbatim screenplay), but as an adaptation of one of the most widely acclaimed novels of the decade, it’s a total disappointment. Neither an abysmal mess, nor a compelling drama, and somehow less interesting than either extreme, The Goldfinch is merely passable; fans of the book or those itching for the rebirth of the mid-budget adult drama might find it temporarily satisfying, but for most, it’s a visually striking, yet hollow and overstuffed slog.