“The Goldfinch” is a sprawling movie based on a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winning novel by Donna Tartt. Like the book, the film, starring Ansel Elgort, spans years and is stuffed with colourful characters. Also, like the book, it could be described as Dickensian, given its study of social status, unrequited love and the topper, abused orphans. But the film, despite the ample plotting, is really about something simple, how the beauty of great art can give life meaning.
The action begins when Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) is 13 years old. He and his mother are spending an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before an appointment with his school principal. They look at some of mom’s favorite paintings, Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” before becoming separated. From the next room Theo hears a panic, then an explosion. He survived the blast but his mother was killed and he has always felt responsible for her death.
Throughout his eventful life, from being almost-adopted by a wealthy Upper West Side family, and re-connecting with his errant father (Luke Wilson) to becoming fast friends with a sketchy neighbour (Finn Wolfhard as a teen, Aneurin Barnard as an adult) and carrying a torch for Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) another explosion survivor, his constant companion is a “The Goldfinch,” a valuable painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius he took from the blast site. Moving from place to place, state to state, it was a carefully wrapped reminder of the worst day of his life.
“The Goldfinch” is respectful of its source material. The book is an epic exercise in storytelling, twisting and turning its way through Theo’s life, exploring all the dark nooks and crannies. Flashing forward and back the film also takes time in allowing us to form a connection with Theo and the guilt he wears like a badge. As an adult, played by Elgort, a veneer of charm hides his inner turmoil and heavy drug use. While it is interesting to see Theo navigate these choppy waters the heart of the film lies in young Theo.
Fegley, best known for his touching work in “Pete’s Dragon,” inspires pure empathy, playing the youngster as someone trying to take control of a life he has no control over. He’s a victim of circumstance as much as his mother is, but his curse is that he must go on, burdened by the past. Fegley reveals layers. In a standout performance, he’s simultaneously a kid and an old soul.
“The Goldfinch” swings for the fences but doesn’t quite hit a home run. The expansive story takes one or two strange turns too many and feels stretched in its final half-hour but is bolstered by tremendous performances courtesy of the ensemble, with Fegley, Kidman, Jeffrey Wright and Luke Wilson leading the pack.