The Goldfinch

THE GOLDFINCH. Starring: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, and Hailey Wist. Directed by John Crowley. Rated M (Mature themes, drug use, violence and coarse language). 149 min.

This American drama is based on the 2014 Pulitzer Award winning book of the same name written by Donna Tartt and published in September, 2013. It is the story of a troubled boy whose childhood conflicts lead him as an adult into the world of art-forgery.

At 13 years of age, “Theo” Decker (Oakes Fegley) witnessed the killing of his mother, Audrey Decker (Hailey Wist) in a terrorist attack by bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Through the chaos of that day, he clings to a memory of a painting that hung in the Met., which he stole. It was a painting of a small bird chained to a perch: “The Goldfinch” of the film’s title. Theo takes the painting from the Met. immediately following the attack. The work of art was a small 1654 masterpiece painting by Carel Fabritius. For Theo, it remained as a permanent symbol of his mother’s tragic death, and his personal aspirations for his passage into young adulthood.

The painting was a favourite of his mother, who was taking him to the Met. to see it. Theo was told to steal it at the urging of a dying elderly man, whom he encountered as he tried to find his way out of the Museum, following the blast. The painting for which the book and film are named is from a collection in The Hague, Netherlands. Theo took the priceless painting on the urging of a  man, who made him promise to rescue it to preserve it from destruction.

Theo’s past is relevant to the viewer’s understanding of what happened. He was the son of an emotionally abusive father, Larry (Luke Wilson), and was isolated in his family. Traumatised by the terrorist attack, which occurs surprisingly very late into the movie, he was taken in as an orphan by a rich New York socialite, Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman), who offered him the kindness he desperately needed.

The role of Theo as a grown man is taken by Ansel Elgort, who focuses the viewer on the sorrows and tribulations of a young boy, who grows into an emotionally conflicted adult. In many ways, the film is essentially a coming-of-age story about Theo, who tries unsuccessfully to recover from extreme emotional events.

The film, like the novel, aims to connect with the heart as well as the mind, but is not successful in doing so. Theo enters the world of art forgery, and his conflicts are enormous - he succumbs to drug addiction, and the movie spends a lot of time on his homosexual and heterosexual leanings.  In multiple ways, he falls victim to the lures of a dissolute life.

The complexities of the film’s plot-line and the film’s action-narrative distract from the sharpness of the tragedy that forged Theo’s path to adulthood. As an adult, he spends his time as a frustrated antiques dealer selling furniture to people he “can’t stand”, and his conflicts stay unresolved. Towards the end of the film, the plot takes a dramatic, unexpected turn. “The Goldfinch” is stolen from Theo by someone he trusted. The eventual theft of it by Theo’s close friend, Boris (Aneurin Barnard) puts Theo in the same situation as those be has been defrauding.

A well-dressed Nicole Kidman captures the privileged look of high affluence and controlled emotional repression, and Theo is impressively acted as a young boy and as a young adult by Oakes Fegley, and Ansel Elgort, respectively. The direction by John Crowley sweeps across time and place, and jumps back and forth frequently, but erratically, between a young and an old Theo.

This is a lengthy film of many moving parts, time periods, and characters. With its complex action, it struggles to maintain an air of adventure mystery rather than allows the viewer to analyse and  explore the pain of traumatised youth. In the last half hour, however, it provides a particularly intriguing look at the complexities and betrayals of international art-forgery.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Warner. Bros. Pictures

Released September 26, 2019

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