Film review: The Goldfinch An excess baggage of expectations

Philip Cu Unjieng - The Philippine Star
Film review: The Goldfinch An excess baggage of expectations
From left: Boyd Gaines, Oakes Fegley and Nicole Kidman in a scene from the drama

MANILA, Philippines — Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, now comes to the screen with, understandably, an excess baggage of expectations. The director on board is James Crowley, who did a delightful job four years ago with Brooklyn, itself a prize-winning novel of Colm Toibín that starred Saoirse Ronan. And if Goldfinch was a dense, complex coming-of-age, dual strand narrative novel; the challenge would have been how to transition this to the screen, and somehow make the reams of pages that had to do with internal musings, motive and reflections, come to life in a cinematic manner that entertains.

Playing the central character of Theo Decker are Oakes Fegley as Theo at 11 years of age, and Ansel Elgort as 20-something Theo. The central event that links the two narratives is young Theo at the museum with his mother when a terrorist bomb attack leaves the boy emotionally scarred for life, impacting on the things he does and the kind of personality traits he develops. I won’t give any major plot points away as the joy of reading this terrific novel was all to do with discovery, of seeing how decisions taken even as a child, had tremendous bearing on what one does as an adult.

Nicole Kidman portrays Mrs. Barbour, matriarch of the family Theo turns to after the museum tragedy. And there’s Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), a furniture and antique restorer, who becomes the closest thing Theo has as a father figure, given his bio-Dad (Luke Wilson) is the epitome of absentee irresponsibility. The one having the most fun in the support cast would be Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard, playing young and young adult Boris, the Russian émigré who becomes Theo’s closest friend, and playing a pivotal role in the story’s resolution.

Off the bat, I’ll say that if you’ve never read the novel, this may be one of the more enjoyable films you can watch this year. It’s mature and densely plotted, filled with twists and turns — and if the film drives you to pick up the novel, it will have served its purpose.

However, if like me, you loved the novel, be prepared to be underwhelmed by this film adaptation. It’s almost like the producers came into this project with too much awe, too much stiff respect, that this is a Pulitzer Prize-winning work. As a result, there is a stiffness to the proceedings that makes the minutes tick by in excruciating fashion. You’ll beg for a more subversive approach, some humor and warmth, a naughty wink here and there from the filmmakers, to remind us that the film still has to delight.

Crowley displayed this in good measure with Brooklyn, a light-hearted star turn for Saoirse, and who can forget Julie Walters as Mrs. Kehoe, the imperious head of the New York boarding house where Ellis ended up, sailing from Ireland. The spontaneity, the irrepressible charm and light touch are sadly lacking in The Goldfinch. At “book value,” there was so much promise with The Goldfinch, but as a film adaptation, I doubt its market value will amount to much.

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