I’ve read more than my usual amount of movie reviews for this one, because that is the shape my interest in The Goldfinch takes, and it’s been remarkable to me how many reviewers have referred to other reviews in their own. As if a whole Goldfinch review ecosystem has grown up around this movie. And I’m definitely going to fall into this too, so I’ll just start by saying that oh they’re all right, this movie is not good! But it also so nearly replicated my experience reading the book that I’m…impressed? In a grim way? But also a really joyous way? It is confusing! It is The Goldfinch!
I read this book this summer in a protracted state of bewilderment that it wasn’t a satirical fantasy, that it was dead serious, that it was Still. Going. On. And that in all these pages it wasn’t going to just let go and become an absurd picaresque—Candide with antisocial personality disorder. Or as a friend put it, Harry Potter with an Oxy problem. Or just closeted, we all know this would make more sense if Theo was just repressed into inanity. But to my amazement, the novel continued to insist that it wasn’t quite any of these things, sorry, but something else, something maddeningly inconsistent and fucking captivating because of it. Dickens by way of Highsmith, but with Charles Ryder as Tom Ripley, along with Brideshead Revisited’s infamous ability to spend the whole back half lowering you into your grave because it just has to let you down one last time. As another friend once said when we were commenting on how we’d been talking continuously about The Goldfinch for over a month at that point, this book just so SPECTACULARLY fails to live up to its potential. Flawed things can have a remarkable power. And as a result, my fiend heart loved it all the way through, loved it at its most brilliant and its most unaware, loved it at its most sloggish and most deranged. This book got its claws in me, and sometimes I really can’t tell the difference between ironic and sincere enjoyment. Sometimes it all hits the same way.
I do not think The Goldfinch is a great novel, but I am greatly obsessed with it, and that is sure something. And I was so, so excited about this movie, which the gloriously, hilariously melodramatic trailers clearly indicated was going to just re-litigate all this for me on the big screen. I would look at what I knew about the production, and like an echo of how I feel about Donna Tartt, could not understand why John Crowley was making any of the decisions he was making! And then I finally saw the movie, opening night babey, and it was EVEN MORE THIS WAY.
Should we just start at the casting? We’re starting at the casting, and I’m going to block-quote something from Nate Jones’s Goldfinch piece because he really has a way of capturing exactly It:
“Ever since he broke out with The Fault in Our Stars, Ansel Elgort has been the subject of one frequent criticism: that he seems, in the immortal words of my former colleague Margaret Lyons, ‘like a chode.’ There are some young male stars you actually lose sympathy for the more you see of them, and no question, Elgort is one. (Shia LaBeouf circa 2010 was another.) However, I venture that this actually makes The Goldfinch work better! As an orphan with a tragic past who’s grown into a shady antiques dealer, Elgort’s Theo is supposed to be slightly smug and insufferable. Wanting to punch him in the face is the whole point.”
Nate, Nate yes.
And see this is where I get all mixed up, because if a movie perfectly renders a book in every way including its flaws, is that, in a way, good??? Like, god, I enjoyed mopey yet dead inside Ansel Elgort in this SO MUCH, but I was always, always laughing at him. “I wear designer suits,” he dully begins one stretch of voiceover, and I nearly choked and died right there in my seat.
Let me say that the small boy is genuinely good, the littlest pair of Warby Parker frames they cast does a really admirable job. I felt for this small boy! And yet it is still believable that he grows up to be an asshole, just as it is in the book. God, this exquisitely bitchy moment they gave him when he’s being questioned by the art cops and social workers and whomever after the explosion, when he says that his mom had wanted to go back to look at The Anatomy Lesson, and then deigns to supply to these plebeians: “It’s a Rembrandt.”
What we need in movie adaptations, I believe, is more of things like that, new material written for these characters that brings them to life in a different medium with its own toolbox. What we neeever needed was a whole moment devoted to Theo giving his mom’s earrings to Kitsey and her wavering about whether or not she’s going to wear them to the wedding. There were so, so many scenes like that just pulled right off the page, but to what end? To what point, what meaning? And because there is so much of this lugubrious plot they’re trying to get through, it feels like the movie is just dutifully marching from book moment to book moment, and I think you feel the moments they do skip even more this way. This dismal yet clipped energy also ends up stripping the story of so much of its feeling, as few scenes and characters are given time and breathing space to elevate anything above a rote recital.
For instance, Alex McLevy’s is probably my favorite Goldfinch review I’ve read, simply as the only one honest enough to declare that there was just not enough Boris, the cheerful lunatic Russian saint who Pylades Theo through his godforsaken white collar train wreck of a life, and the fucking best part of this book. Alex also proposes that Boris is, metaphorically, The Goldfinch of The Goldfinch, and I had also proposed that in one of my more unhinged moments, so this was a really great moment for over-involved dumbasses everywhere.
However, due to the way this movie is structured (way more on that in a minute), they hold Boris back from us for over an hour into the runtime, which is nearly unconscionable for a character who has an entire section of the book named after him. Then at last Finn Wolfhard tromps in like a gangling ghost, with a boyish attempt at a Slavic accent that honestly I just found cute. He was trying. He was 14. Aneurin Barnard is also just faking his way through it, it is what it is, I don’t mind.
But something odd was up with the Borises, something that mattered to me far more. The cast has been going around repeating how the older and younger actors didn’t work together to develop a consistent character, instead embracing that people are different at different points in their life. So it’s gotta be Crowley’s direction then, that, belying this character’s immense importance in Theo’s life, emotionally as well as narratively, the Borises both come across as rather….broad? There’s something kinda broadly comic and very….side-charactery about both of their performances. As Alex also alluded to, Boris here felt kinda like this quirky figure who just pops up periodically, which I’d say is a mishandling of one of the most meaningful characters in this story.
But, these two actors do something else really similar as well, moving in entirely a different direction, back toward something deeper. It’s their eyes. Their eyes are strikingly similar, both large and very black, sloe-eyed, and they both watch their Theos. As Boris quips in the book once, “Shall we stand here tenderly and gaze?” Oh these ones shall! There’s a scene of little Theo and Boris absolutely toasted on crushed Vicodin and vodka, lying on their backs by the pool, where Roger Deakins has framed Finn Wolfhard in focus just past Oakes Fegley’s face, and he just watches him the whole time he talks, his gaze near and open. And Aneurin Barnard does the same thing, from a new angle now as their height difference has fully swapped, but again, any scene he has his eyes trained up on Ansel Elgort, pausing in his lines sometimes, but always keeping his eyes on him, watchful and intent. These were glimmers of a movie that cared less about hitting a really astonishing number of the book’s march of plot beats, and more about building an emotional truth to it all.
One more small thing in praise of the Borises, who deserved better: there were just two moments where I genuinely laughed watching this, not an ironic or meta laugh, of which I had many, but pure surprised delight at a joke. One for each Boris: young Boris high off his ass on acid, getting caught stealing a glass of wine and responding, dazed: “I thought you couldn’t see me,” and grown Boris, when Gyuri greets Theo outside Schiphol with a cheery “Hello Potter!” and Theo goes “You know that’s not really my name?”, and Boris just staring Gyuri down like he’s the Fae about to steal Theo’s real name and swiftly barking: “So?”
Alright, moving on to: the time jumping. Gotta disagree with a lot of reviews saying this movie cut back and forth between the past and present too much, as I’d say it was a different problem: if you’re gonna cut around in time, you gotta cut around a lot MORE than this did. Go full Fosse/Verdon or don’t go for it at all. As is, the movie actually only moves ONE chunk of the timeline out of book order, which I would not call reshuffling the chronology, but I would call weird as hell! All that really moved was that we got a long interlude of grown Theo in New York dealing in fraudulent antiquities & with Lucius Reeve and reconnecting with the Barbours, just wedged in right after little Theo was brought to Vegas, but before he meets Boris. Then after we see grown Theo meet grown Kitsey, we hop back to where we were and just proceed chronologically again there on out.
The whole film is peppered with the occasional brief PTSD-esque flashbacks to the bombing and immediate aftermath, in the classic style deployed by so many movies and shows, but as those flashes are there to depict the trauma points in the main character’s mind, not to move the plot forward, their being scattered throughout doesn’t function in the same way as moving that whole section. The only move that I would brook this ‘too much shuffling’ argument for is that due to cuts we never see Theo’s mom’s face or hear her speak until the very very end, in a little flashback to the two of them in the gallery looking at The Goldfinch, which I found a bizarre choice as it withholds from the whole preceding film the character Theo spends all of it missing, and the reason why this painting was so important to him. So the timeline is definitely not all cut up, but those 1.5 changes were SO nonsensical and destabilizing that I understand people watching this thinking, “this is chaos.”
As I did, I was watching this thinking it was chaos. And having a great time, I just gotta underline that again. I enjoy this story in every permutation precisely because it is somehow chaotic and yet low energy, and sometimes Boris is there. This is, apparently, how you trap me. And on the grandest meta-textual level, turning a book that pretentious into failed Oscar bait is so hearty I will savor it forever.