There’s a room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that once housed one of the last surviving works of 17th-century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, an oil-on-panel of a chained goldfinch. But after a terrorist bombing destroyed a wing of the museum, the famed painting went missing, and the world eventually presumed it to be lost.
But it wasn’t. Indeed, it emerged from the wreckage largely untarnished, concealed inside the backpack of 13-year-old Theodore Decker, whose mother perished in the explosion.
We meet Theo (Ansel Elgort) eight years later in an Amsterdam hotel. He painstakingly scrubs someone else’s blood from one of his shirts, taking swigs from mini-bar vodka bottles and prepares a line of nearly a dozen prescription pills, all while a Dutch newspaper article sits spread-out on the bed, filled with rumors about the priceless painting he stole all those years before. He’s at rock bottom, and if it weren’t for the senseless act of violence that took his mother and enabled his first and greatest crime, perhaps Theo’s life wouldn’t have been the twisted saga of lawlessness, addiction and abuse that led him here.
And perhaps — even better — we wouldn’t be subjected to it.
Based on Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel, “The Goldfinch” makes bold promises to viewers based alone on the talent involved: director John Crowley (2015 Best Picture contender “Brooklyn”), a cast that includes Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Wright, and cinematographer Roger Deakins — perhaps the greatest to ever live — manning the camera. To its credit, this film boasts some brilliant technical execution. Deakins composes each frame near-perfectly, especially when the setting moves from New York to the desert, a landscape in which he proved himself to be right at home with 2015’s “Sicario.” Also turning in brilliant work is composer Trevor Gureckis, who contributes greatly to enforcing the film’s recurring themes of heartbreak, rejection, manipulation and loss.
The film otherwise fails to make those different pressure points leave their intended marks, telling a meandering, painfully melodramatic tale that, despite being two-and-a-half hours long, can’t manage to fully empathize with any of the key players involved. Some parts are acted quite capably for what they’re given, including Elgort and Oakes Fegley as teenage and adult Theo, respectively. Others, such as Luke Wilson’s turn as Theo’s absent father, are cartoonishly overwrought. But regardless of performance, each character, major or minor, goes woefully unrealized.
Instead, “The Goldfinch” spends its time pumping its storyline and dialogue full of alienating metaphors that simply don’t land. It aims for Tarkovskian filmic poetry, instead coming off as a badly-edited, high-brow, anti-everything PSA that features one too many Radiohead songs to be taken seriously.
For those like myself who haven’t read Tartt’s novel — a Pulitzer winner — it’s only fair to assume it is an accomplished work of fiction. Having seen this film, it’s also fair to assume that the book is filled with soulfully descriptive, poetic language, something that is perfectly able to thrive on the page but often has a rocky transition to the screen — a conundrum exhibited in Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular failure to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” in 2013.
At best, this attempt to breathe cinematic life into “The Goldfinch” suggests that, like Fitzgerald’s classic, Tartt’s novel is virtually unadaptable, an idea further bolstered by the film’s stacked cast and crew. At worst, it argues that a group of artists — no matter their combined skill — is worthless when they can’t decide how to tell a story best.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and a founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.