‘The Goldfinch’ skims the surface of intriguing people and ideas
Even if you didn’t know it’s based on a critically acclaimed novel, you could probably guess as you watched it that the new movie, “The Goldfinch,” has literary roots. It tells an expansive, sprawling story (Manhattan, Las Vegas, Amsterdam), includes many distinctive characters, incorporates overlapping themes, and begins with a kind of philosophical voice-over that screams “literature.”
“In Amsterdam I dream I saw my mother again, same beautiful pale blue eyes,” the voice-over says. “When I lost her, I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier.”
It’s that very literariness that I enjoy in the film, but it also may be its downfall. I fully appreciate how meaty the issues are that “The Goldfinch” grapples with, how artfully drawn the characters are, and how idiosyncratic the story is. But so well does the movie suggest a richer life behind the characters and the story, that paradoxically, it comes up wanting. Without having read the Donna Tartt novel, I can confidently say the movie doesn’t do it justice. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing.
The movie centers on a 13-year-old child named Theo in the aftermath of a horrific explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of New York. He was there with his mother when a terrorist bomb blew up the building, killing her and many others. Dazed but conscious, Theo stuffs a 17th-century Dutch painting of a goldfinch into his backpack as he stumbles out of the museum.
For the rest of the film, as he moves from one family situation to another to another, he clings to his stolen painting as if it was his life ring, which it metaphorically is, well into his twenties.
“The Goldfinch” is a coming-of-age story, but it’s specifically a coming-of-age story about overcoming trauma. Maybe “overcoming” is too strong a word. “Coping” might be better, since Theo self-medicates with dodgy friends, drugs, alcohol, and petty crimes. And through it all, he continues to blames himself for his mother’s death.
Among the many stops he makes along the way is an antique shop whose owner takes him in and teaches him the trade. The antiques dealer’s reverence for art parallels Theo’s reverence for his mother and the two inevitably become intertwined. When the dealer notes the loss of a particular work of art, he bemoans losing “something that should have been immortal,” a phrase that no doubt rings true psychologically for Theo vis a vis his Mom.
The dealer also teaches Theo how to distinguish between authentic antiques and the merely tricked-up-to-look “authentic.” Again with the metaphors, Theo learns how to pass himself off as “authentic” when he’s anything but. He even acknowledges “we become disguised to ourselves.”
There’s a lot to chew on in “The Goldfinch” and I’ve barely even scratched the surface in this review. But then, that’s also a problem with the film. It seems to skim over the surface of a lot of intriguing people and ideas. The great Nicole Kidman, for instance, plays the mother of a school friend of Theo’s who takes him into her home. As a mother substitute, she’s awfully cold and detached but she nonetheless forges an intense connection with the bereft kid. What that relationship is all about escapes me but seems to promise more than it delivers. Any number of times I remember thinking, I bet that’s better explained in the book.
Compared to standard Hollywood fare, “The Goldfinch” is admirably ambitious. But being ambitious is not always enough. To use a final metaphor, this movie is like the goldfinch in the painting, beautiful but chained to its perch. That perch is the source material, and it sits uneasily on it.