‘The Goldfinch’ skims the surface of intriguing people and ideas

Sep 13, 2019, 11:59 AM

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.

‘IT Chapter 2’ has plenty of chills, but three hours worth is tiring

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.

‘After the Wedding’ richly rewarding or blatantly manipulating

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.

Tom Tangney on KIRO Radio

Tom Tangney

Last Duel...
Tom Tangney

Poor Marguerite’s story saves ‘The Last Duel’

Tom Tangney says, ultimately, The Last Duel is a proto-feminist take on the Middle Ages with Marguerite's take that brings the film into focus.
4 days ago
James Bond...
Tom Tangney

Daniel Craig’s final James Bond movie comes full-circle

The 25th installment in the James Bond movie franchise may be titled "No Time to Die," but "Too Much Time to Die" may be more fitting.
12 days ago
Egyptian Theater...
Tom Tangney

Seattle’s Egyptian Theater hosts SIFF’s first ever documentary film festival

Seattle's Egyptian Theater is hosting SIFF's first ever documentary film festival. Dubbed DocFest, the weeklong festival features 13 separate titles.
19 days ago
Tom Tangney

A letter: ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ the movie

Dear Evan Hansen, The Movie: I'm sorry I didn't like you as much as you wanted me to. I tried, I really, really tried.
25 days ago
nine days...
Tom Tangney

‘Nine Days’ is about as life-affirming a movie as there can be

Nine days to live. That's the premise of this new, refreshingly original movie called "Nine Days." But that premise is not what you think.
2 months ago
Tom Tangney

‘Stillwater’ does not run deep enough

Written and directed by Oscar-winning Tom McCarthy, 'Stillwater' is a contemporary story about a father's attempt to free his daughter from a French prison. 
3 months ago

Sponsored Articles


How to Have a Stress-Free Real Estate Experience

The real estate industry has adapted and sellers are taking full advantage of new real estate models. One of which is Every Door Real Estate.
IQ Air

How Poor Air Quality Is Affecting Our Future Athletes

You cannot control your child’s breathing environment 100% of the time, but you can make a huge impact.
Swedish Health Services

Special Coverage: National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

There are a wide variety of treatment options available for men with prostate cancer. The most technologically advanced treatment option in the Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform.
Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for both lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.

Small, Minority-Owned Businesses in King County and Pierce County Can Now Apply For $10,000 Relief Grants Through Comcast RISE

Businesses in King County and Pierce County can apply beginning on October 1, 2021, at for a chance to receive a $10,000 relief grant.
Courtesy of JWatch Photography....
Experience Anacortes

Summer Fun Activities in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
‘The Goldfinch’ skims the surface of intriguing people and ideas