Did We Judge ‘The Goldfinch’ Too Harshly?

the goldfinch donna tartt ansel elgort film

When I first watched The Goldfinch I, like many others, was incredibly disappointed with how it turned out.

What was once a film that had everything going for it—a big name director in John Crowley, a great ensemble cast, literary merit in its source material—became nothing more than boring Oscar bait and a critical and commercial bomb. While undoubtedly one of the most beautiful looking films that year, even Roger Deakins’ cinematographic veneer struggled to cover the haphazard editing. It was certainly a ballsy attempt to try and cram a contemporary Dickensian epic into a 149-minute film. Moreover, being a dedicated Donna Tartt reader myself, I was going into the cinema with high hopes, but a greater degree of scepticism.

And yet, nearly two years on and watching it in another lockdown, I find myself softened to it. Sure, it’s still messy and incoherent at times, and I wish they had cast someone who wasn’t Ansel Elgort as the older Theo. But I found myself, dare I say… enjoying myself. What is it that has caused such a U-turn? Perhaps it’s the time away from the film and its source material. Perhaps it’s now that the Oscar it once pinned its hopes on has long since passed and it can now be appreciated as a film without the ambition it was trying so hard to adhere to. But I believe now is the time to rewatch The Goldfinch and appreciate what it did right.

The visuals

The greatest accolade this film can proudly take home is Roger Deakins’ working his cinematography magic. It astounds me how the man, fresh from the bombastic demands of Blade Runner 2049’s beautiful visuals, was able to then apply the same level of meticulous beauty to a more grounded, domestic setting. The flecks of dust in the air as young Theo looks at the seat in front of him on a plane. The arid Las Vegas desert with its single oasis-like green swimming pool in the dark. The snowfall in Amsterdam harkening back to the falling ashes that started Theo’s journey. Watching warmth seep into scenes from its cold beginnings as Theo starts to feel at home at the Barber’s home was something I hadn’t noticed before, but emphasised just how the characters and their emotions can influence the world, and indeed the camera, around them. It is the devil in the detail that sets this film above many others in the visuals department, which will sadly go underappreciated.

The screenplay

Because unfortunately, looks aren’t everything. The process of adaptation is a difficult thing; one questions how much of the source material will work well on-screen. Which parts are relevant or could be added to include some artistic flair and scene dressing, and which parts can be removed because they don’t add anything substantial to the narrative? Even the likes of Gillian Flynn culled whole characters when adapting her own novel into the screenplay for David Fincher’s Gone Girl. It’s regrettable then that Peter Straughan’s screenplay is trying too hard to put everything from the book in there, to its detriment. Straughan is no stranger to adapting a text to screen, having written screenplays for the critically acclaimed Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and the critically panned The Snowman. The Goldfinch falls somewhere in between the two. What the screenplay does add is the literary voice of Donna Tartt. Hearing Tartt’s words on-screen is a rare treat, being the first of her works to be adapted. It acts as a conduit between author and audience. While the writing is not bad, attempting to include absolutely everything from the mammoth novel means that the more poignant moments in the story lose their engrossing effect. A little more trimming of the fat would have made an exponential difference.

The explosion

The same can be said for the editing of the film. Rather than dividing it into a more linear younger/older divide as the book does for the most part, we watch both intercut with each other at various jarring intervals that makes it easy to lose track. I wanted to spend as much time with Theo in his younger years, mostly due to the performances of the cast in those sequences, before moving into the later years and seeing that growth having been satisfied with what had transpired.

But in saying this, something in this latest watch caught my attention and allowed me to forgive certain aspects of the edit. In Tartt’s original novel, the explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that subsequently leads to Theo stealing The Goldfinch painting, and sets off this chain of events, is largely left at the beginning with the occasional interspersed mention here and there. However, the film harkens back to this event in various sequences, each shedding new light on what happened during that moment, from the avalanche of ash and rubble to the moment Theo discovers the dying Welty and spirits the painting away. Returning to this event, and indeed ending on the moments prior to it in the final image, reaffirms the trauma that has rocked Theo’s world and be the burden he will carry with him all his life. They’re only small vignettes that remove us from the gloss of antiques and the adolescence spent in Vegas, reminding the audience how all of this came to be, and what drives Theo forward. Oakes Fegley as young Theo demonstrates this weight spectacularly in his scenes. I just wish the same could be said for the treatment of the painting itself that, despite being one of the most famous modern literary MacGuffins, is largely forgotten about, save for a few yearning hugs by our misanthropic main man.

Is The Goldfinch a perfect film? Absolutely not. But I’m glad I have been able to return to it and reassess it in a more positive light. Tartt’s works are deeply insular and intricate, but even tackling the most accessible of her three major works was always going to be a lofty endeavour. It is certainly a film that was perhaps weighed down by its own ambition to reach the stardom of its source material, but will nonetheless serve as a visual treat, if a divisive one.

Words by Jack Roberts

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