‘The Goldfinch’ Film Review: Movie Adaptation Grapples With Big Book, Comes Up Short

Toronto Film Festival 2019: It’s easier to cover this much ground in 784 pages than in a 2-hour-and-29-minute running time that begins to feel exhausting well before it ends

The Goldfinch
Courtesy of TIFF

It’s hard to imagine that there could be a better-looking movie at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival than John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s bestselling novel “The Goldfinch.” And that makes the many areas in which the film falls short all the more frustrating.

A high-toned adaptation of the novel from Crowley, the Irish director responsible for the Oscar Best Picture nominee “Brooklyn,” “The Goldfinch” is less straightforward than the novel, jumping back and forth in time, but it also feels far more conventional. Where Crowley’s previous film was an understated gem that captured the gentle poetry of Colm Toibin’s novel, his new one is bigger, bolder and more earthbound.

The bigness and boldness are of necessity. “The Goldfinch,” which had its world premiere this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a coming-of-age story of a young boy whose mother is killed in a terrorist explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it’s also a love story and an examination of a guilt and a heist and a testament to the power of art.

You can cover that in 784 pages, maybe, but it’s a lot to handle even in the film’s 2 hour and 29 minute running time, which begins to feel exhausting well before it ends.

When we first meet our protagonist, Theo Decker, he’s played by Ansel Elgort as a smooth operator who looks immaculate in his bespoke suits but is clearly carrying a whole lot of trouble on the inside.

Theo is at a point of despair – and as he meticulously prepares to take his own life, the film jumps back to the beginning of the novel to show him as a young teen (played by Oakes Fegley). The death of Theo’s mother pushes him deep into his shell, until a ring given to him by a man who died in the explosion leads him to an antique store where he meets “Hobie” Hobart (Jeffrey Wright) and, crucially, a young girl who also survived the explosion.

We start to watch the two wounded children bond, and then we’re suddenly back to the grown Theo again – and at this point, the time jumps seem designed more to get Elgort onscreen again than to serve any real dramatic point, because we’re soon back with Fegley for a long stretch.

Theo is an intriguing character, a man crippled by guilt and by secrets he can’t reveal. And the soundtrack is almost as intriguing as the character, mixing the slow movement of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto with New Order’s “Your Silent Face,” Bill Evans’ “Blue Monk,” Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place” and Them’s version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

Best of all is the remarkable cinematography by a true master, Roger Deakins. From the warm and lustrous look of a high-end antique store to the perfectly luminous sheen in a swanky home to the stark, hard glare of a deserted housing development outside Vegas, Deakins makes the movie look so good you can sometimes ignore its shortcomings.

But only sometimes. The film grows more florid and dramatic as it unfolds, and more disjointed; even with reliable actors like Elgort, Wright, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, and Luke Wilson on hand, the storytelling feels clunky in a way “Brooklyn” never did.

For Theo, the Carel Fabritius painting that gives the film its name represents the permanence of art, the possibility of beauty surviving in an ugly world and, in a way, the possibility of some kind of redemption in the aftermath of horrible tragedy. But not all art survives in the same way. “The Goldfinch,” the novel, was a testament to the power of “The Goldfinch,” the painting – but “The Goldfinch,” the movie, can’t be more than a footnote to the mysteries and the grace of the works that inspired it.