To capture the essence of a book in a film adaptation is always hard. Many qualify a good adaptation by how many of the book’s depictions appear on screen, few value the real strength of an adaptation in capturing the book’s emotional spirit. “The Goldfinch” was a best-seller that spent over 30 weeks atop the New York Times Best Selling list in 2013 and 2014; it was bound to have been turned into a movie, it was only surprising that it took six years to capitalize on its heat.
The Goldfinch (2019) is a fairly faithful adaptation of its source novel. The story follows Theodore (Oakes Fegley), a young kid who, when on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the victim of a terrorist bombing. His mother is killed in the bombing, which leads him to bounce around homes, finding people and things to attach to as he deals with his grief and trauma. The film follows him into his adulthood (played then by Ansel Elgort), as he continues to see the echoes of that fateful bombing in his life and struggles.
The subject of grief has always fascinated human beings, especially when related to death. This is particularly curious to see play out from the perspective of a child. Fegley perfectly encapsulates the somewhat exterior indifferent demeanor of Theodore, while all the same showing glimpses of a storm raging inside of him. The young actor brings out a performance that many in his profession struggle to give well into their careers. Paired with a spectacular supporting cast with the likes of Nicole Kidman (at her best), Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, and Jeffrey Wright, the first half of the film resonates strongest. It is in these scenes of the immediate aftermath of Theodore’s tragedy that director John Crowley (Brooklyn (2015)) digs into the meat of the novel, exploring the rollercoaster emotional jolts that death brings about.
Paired with cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049 (2017)), Crowley is able to focus his narrative on details, glances, and emotional snaps that are already hard to bring about on a page let alone on screen. Crowley is also smart to not rush his story, despite having a lot of content and plot points to thread. To have sped through would have robbed the film of the captured paused, empty, and confused feeling that trauma brings. The slow-burn may not be to everyone’s liking, but it allows the most skilled performers to relish and build on the film’s characters and themes.
However, as with every book-to-film adaptation, much material has to be cut, and this causes certain strains on relationships with characters that aren’t given as much time to develop. This in turn leaves more work for the performers to pull off; and unfortunately Ansel Elgort in the second half of the film is unable to capture the dimensions and depths of Fegley. Elgort showed in his break-out role The Fault in Our Stars (2014) that he could exude charm like no one else, and his best performances so far have come when he’s leaned into that side of performances. However, when the American actor is demanded more range, he’s struggled to deliver. Theodore is a character of extreme reserve and deep sorrow, and Elgort is incapable moving into his emotional headspace. Given the fact that the film is edited with scenes from Theodore’s past and present interjected, it contrasts Elgort’s one-dimensional performance with the deep dive that Fegley boldly stepped into. The result is a second half of the film that, if one hasn’t read the source novel, is missing a narrative and emotional guide, leaving to certain climaxes to dull their effect.
The Goldfinch is a delicate and largely successful adaptation of its source novel (a rare claim to make for any film adaptation). The cuts from the novel are relieved by well-directed and compact sequences. The strong cast led by a brilliant Oakes Fegley bring about a first half of the film that, if standing by itself, would have been a perfect and heart-wrenching look at loss. However, the second half of the film is dragged down by its lead, Elgort, who is incapable of inhabiting the emotional dimensions that Fegley and the rest of the cast had worked so hard to build for the film. The result is an unjust imbalance that blunts too much potential and delicacy down.