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Review: The Goldfinch Clamors with Melodrama and Existential Anguish

Its inquisitiveness gives all the melodramatic incidents more of a charge and a purpose for keeping our attention.

2.5
The Goldfinch
Photo: Warner Bros.

After a terrorist bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art leaves his mother dead, 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley) carries himself like a zombie with a secret. The boy leaves the museum with Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, the 17th-century painting he’d been looking at when the explosion happened. Presumed lost by the world, the painting is now the only thing keeping the stunned, numbed Theo tethered to any semblance of reality.

Though Peter Straughan’s screenplay streamlines Donna Tartt’s overwrought Pulitzer-winning 2013 novel, John Crowley’s three-handkerchief film adaptation throws a lot at the viewer, and not all of it makes much sense, except for the painting. Enough of the individual moments pulled by Straughan from the rag-and-bone shop of Tartt’s sprawling mystery narrative make an emotional impact that the story’s structural issues fail to register at first.

Much of that is due to Fegley. Theo is taken in after the bombing by the Barbours, the wealthy family of a school friend (Ryan Foust), and his trauma is sharply, simply put across by Fegley with a cautiously calibrated courtesy that clearly signals the screaming loss inside the boy. Save for a framing device where the older Theo (Angels Elgort) melts down in an Amsterdam hotel room, not too much happens in these early stretches. As Theo tries to adjust to a life without family, the people around him simply try to make sense of this quietly wounded kid: Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, somehow both flinty and warm), who beams at his gentlemanly ways; Pippa (Aimee Laurence), the girl who had been standing next to Theo when the bomb went off and who he’s probably in love with; and Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the Greenwich Village antiques dealer who for laughably implausible reasons makes Theo his ward.

Soon the story relocates Theo to Las Vegas, where he’s left to his fate at the hands of his long-absent alcoholic gambler of a father, Larry (Luke Wilson), and his spray-tanned girlfriend, Xandra (Sarah Paulson). The sharp transition from New York’s gleaming warmth—shot by Roger Deakins in rich, reassuring tones—to the foreclosed ghost subdivision on the edge of a desert gives the narrative a kick it was missing in the all-too-cozily rendered confines of the Village and Central Park East. (When one of the Barbours wonders whether Theo, once in Las Vegas, will attend “one of those schools you read about” with “gangs and metal detectors,” it’s unclear whether the line’s class myopia is intentional or not.) Further amplifying things is the introduction of Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a Ukrainian teen who’s led a gypsy lifestyle with his businessman father and finds in Theo a fellow lost and self-destructively reckless soul.

Eventually, Theo finds his way back to New York, where he works to reconstruct an idealized version of his pre-bombing existence. But by the time the story comes back to young adult Theo, his pursuit of that cossetted Manhattan life has resulted in the accrual of enough transgressions and several more sedimentary layers of guilt that his bottoming-out in Amsterdam starts to make more sense. On an emotional level, that is. The story here is more of a Dickensian litany of plot twists, arbitrary cruelties, excessive generosities, and coincidences tied together roughly by the weighty symbolic resonance of the painting.

Nearly buried in the emotive to-and-fro is something like a theme, or at least a query: Do things contain meaning? After a catastrophe like that which shredded Theo’s life, can something like a centuries-old painting of a bird be worthy of notice? Enumerated to Theo in a hushed, agonized soliloquy by a near-shattered Hobie, that query is as close to a point as The Goldfinch gets, and even if Tartt might just be echoing Tom Stoppard’s time-and-memory play Arcadia (“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind”), it’s one that stays with you. The film doesn’t come close to answering that question, rather losing its way in a cluster of absurd and off-tone hijinks in the last 15 minutes. But just the asking of it helps give all this melodramatic clamor more of a charge and a purpose for trying to hold our attention.

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Oakes Fegley, Luke Wilson, Denis O’Hare, Willa Fitzgerald, Ryan Foust, Aimee Laurence Director: John Crowley Screenwriter: Peter Straughan Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 149 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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