I don’t know why critics in Toronto attacked this film the way they did. It’s not perfect, to be sure, but it’s not a bad movie by any means. Not having read Donna Tartt’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel may have put me at an advantage, as I had no knowledge of the story and therefore no demands or expectations.
Screenwriter Peter Straughan and director John Crowley apparently took Tartt’s linear narrative and broke it in two, so the film periodically jumps from the past to the present. My problem is that Theo Decker, as written (and played by Ansel Elgort) as an adult is difficult to care about, whereas your heart goes out to Theo as a boy (played by Oakes Fegley). Here is a child who has been through hell: a bomb blast at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art has killed his mother, who left his side just seconds earlier. He is convinced that her death is his fault and no amount of reasoning can assuage his guilt.
Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy schoolmate. His surrogate mother (nicely played by Nicole Kidman) comes to think of him as her own…until his deadbeat father (Luke Wilson) shows up and claims him, hoping to get his hands on the kid’s trust fund. The boy is left to his own devices and after many harrowing misadventures he winds up in the care of a kindly man (Jeffrey Wright) who restores antique furniture and sets the youngster on his life path.
By the time we leave the boy behind and focus on the young adult we’ve been through so many emotional experiences that it’s difficult to be receptive to another round. That’s when The Goldfinch starts to feel distended, and at two and a half hours, it’s not your imagination but a simple fact. The movie is long and slow, which would be challenging under the best of circumstances. I could feel it losing its grip on me.
As was recently pointed out to me by another filmmaker, one doesn’t read a hefty novel in one sitting, while a movie has to engage you for its entire duration. Here is where The Goldfinch meets its Waterloo. The film is impeccably crafted, with Roger Deakins behind the camera, good actors onscreen, and excellent use of locations to bring the source material to life. That it falls short is disappointing but hardly cause for invective. Believe me, I’ve seen more than my share of terrible movies and this isn’t one of them.