The best thing I can say about The Goldfinch is that it made me want to read the book. That sounds like, and is intended to be, damning with faint praise, but I think I liked it more than most people. It doesn’t seem to be entirely deserving of the critical drubbing it has taken. It also not completely undeserving of its reception, either. The Goldfinch feels like a well crafted failure; it has all the ingredients and make up of something great, but the end result is significantly less than the sum of its parts.
The Goldfinch takes place in time periods; in the past with 13-year-old Theo and in the present with adult Theo. The parts with young Theo get a lot more time, and therefore work a whole lot better, even if many of its characters get no development. The inciting incident of the movie is the bombing of a museum that kills, among others, Theo’s mother. During the aftermath, Theo makes off with a painting of a Goldfinch. The movie follows his journey as he lives with the Barbour family, headed by the kind yet distant matriarch played by Nicole Kidman. Eventually he ends up with his father out in the Nevada desert. Along the way, he struggles to process his grief. When overcome, he clutches the Goldfinch, a connection to his mother. As an adult, Theo sells antiques and tries to fit in with the social set he left as a child. There are numerous plots and subplots, eventually building to a conflict around the stolen Goldfinch.
The adult stuff feels like a full movie squashed into less than an hour. There is not enough to get a feel for any of the characters or their relationships. Especially with the time jump, it makes it hard to get a read on the world the characters live in. You see young Theo attempt to process his grief, with him finding some solace living with the Barbours, and less living with his father. He makes some friends that help him cope, if not always in healthy ways. Then it jumps to his time as an adult, and the movie never really establishes who he is. Revelations are fast and frequent, but without knowing what the situation was, it is hard to tell how this new information changes anything. Ansel Elgort tries to do what he can, but adult Theo is a cypher. You see him meet a character for the first time in years. The next thing you know, they are engaged. Then the relationship is on the rocks. The movie never really gives a reason to care.
The movie goes through all the motions, but never gets to the emotions. There is a big scene near the end, when Theo comes into conflict with his mentor and business partner. The movie makes it feel like it should be a big moment, but it doesn’t have the impact because the reasons things matter so much to that character aren’t mentioned until that scene. The movie spends so much time with everything else, it could have spent more time on The Goldfinch. You know, the one from the title.
In the end The Goldfinch feels a bit like the early Harry Potter adaptations. There are a lot they do well, but in the end those movies feel a little like they are marking boxes on an adaptation checklist. All of these scenes need to get in, even if that doesn’t leave the time to actually develop any of the characters or the plot. The Goldfinch gives a look into a story that feels like a modern day Dickens (again, I haven’t read the book) but sapped of most of its humanity. It is a movie about grief, but it shows the effects without really letting the viewer into the minds of the characters to see how it affects them.