Drama is in a state of metamorphosis. Reigning are down-and-dirty independent productions such as The Florida Project, while austere studio dramas like Pride & Prejudice have been slowly phased out. Many see the latter as stuffy and inauthentic, meant to go for awards rather than simply tell a good story. That stigma, in some ways, clears the way for a wider variety of stories. But it’s a shame that it has followed The Goldfinch.
The Goldfinch, directed by John Crowley (Brooklyn) and based off Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, has received something of a critical lashing. Yet beneath the hyperbolic negative reviews lies a good film. No, a great one. One that did something I did not expect- genuinely moved me.
The story follows Theo Decker, an affluent child whose world is turned upside down by a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Furthermore, this bombing results in his mother’s death. Following the incident, his journey from adolescent (Oakes Fegley) to adult (Ansel Elgort) involves a series of changes in his life. This sees him wander between a foster family led by kindly matriarch Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman) to his alcoholic ex-actor father (Luke Wilson). Eventually, he ends up partnered with craftsman James Hobart (Jeffrey Wright). All of his journeys tie back to a painting supposedly lost in the bombing: “The Goldfinch”.
Now I have to admit, I have not read the novel upon which the film is based. However, I don’t think this matters, because Crowley and company present a rich cinematic experience all on its own. Opening on an older, drug-addled Theo contemplating his life in a wrecked apartment, the film’s virtues are immediately clear. Visually, the film marks another gorgeous piece to add to the oeuvre of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Even in a room ruined beyond salvation, the details Deakins communicates are meticulous and sharp.
The same applies to Elgort’s Theo as a whole. He carries an air of sophistication about him, even as his past threatens to completely rip him apart. There’s a tragic beauty to seeing him gracefully wallow in his self-destruction that recalls the absorbing nature of, well, a painting. As an opening, it’s effective. However, as a microcosm of the film at hand, it’s stunningly brilliant.
The Goldfinch is about the ups and downs we experience in life. More specifically, how we handle the trauma inflicted upon us. The film’s deliberate pace, forgoing structure to let the various episode in Theo’s life play out, is sure to turn various audiences off. What it loses in forwarding momentum, it gains in giving us insight into the moments that really have impacted Theo.
The warmth he receives from the Barbour family is juxtaposed with the cruelty he faces at the hands of his father. His friendship with Czech immigrant Boris (Finn Wolfhard) exists against the tragedy of both of the abuses they endure. Even his relationship with childhood sweetheart Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) cannot overtake the residual guilt they both feel about being present during the bombing.
Every performance here is terrific due to each and every actor surrendering to the story that Crowley, screenwriter Peter Straughan, and Donna Tartt want to tell. I commend everyone involved for taking on a project with such heavy themes. What do we do when the thoughts of tragedy permeate everything? How can we take the small victories when the good and bad are inseparable in our own heads?
As Theo loses more and more as he through the murky waters of the stolen art trade, the film approaches something close to an answer. One character tells a distraught Theo “sometimes good can come from bad”. The sentiment is simple and maybe even trite to some. But after seeing the sum total of everything that Theo’s life has led to, it was cathartic.
We don’t have to be defined by the bad things that happened to us. As someone who likes to dwell on the past and the hardships I’ve endured in my own life, this impacted me in no small way. While it may fall into some of the conventions of the “prestige drama”, The Goldfinch is a deeply felt, sweeping work of art that should be given a chance. Truly, it’s beautiful inside and out.
The Goldfinch is now in theaters.