Who Made off with THE GOLDFINCH?

Lining up the list of suspects behind one of the year’s biggest disappointments.

We are knee deep in awards season right now. The leaders of the pack are rising to the top as every industry player or film critic is doing everything they can to give their favorite smaller titles a little push to help them along. With the Oscars less than a month away, it’s been quite the season so far. Who hasn’t delighted in watching Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood emerge as a Best Picture contender, or see Knives Out garner the kind of accolades many never expected it to receive? Greta Gerwig is almost certain to take home an Oscar for her stunning adaptation of Little Women while the unstoppable Parasite will certainly continue its wave of success all the way to the Oscar stage.

A pair of expected showdowns (for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively) is now a pipe dream thanks to this week’s announcement of the 2019 Oscar nominations. Still, those performers and their individual films remain part of the conversation as they continue to get widespread approval from cinephiles and general audiences everywhere. The same goes for all the deserving films omitted from the final list this past Monday. Us and The Farewell have seen a resurgence in popularity and the various accolades for Booksmart and The Last Black Man in San Francisco have all but ensured that first-time filmmakers Olivia Wilde and Joe Talbot can look forward to healthy follow-up projects.

However, if there’s one title which wasted no time in vanishing quickly from the conversation, it was The Goldfinch. Although the film adaptation of the bestselling novel by Donna Tartt was considered an ambitious undertaking from the word go, no one could have predicted how stunningly awful everyone thought the movie was following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Directed by John Crowley, and featuring an all-star cast, The Goldfinch told the story of a small boy named Theo (Oakes Fegley), who survives the blast which kills his mother and many others in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The story then follows Theo from childhood to his 20s (eventually played by Ansel Elgort) and watches as he tries to shake the memory from that fateful day and the titular painting which keeps him linked to it.

So as we find ourselves dissecting the list of nominated films the Academy has deemed the year’s “best” (because that list is always ripe for scrutiny), let’s take a breather and reflect on The Goldfinch; the one time awards-hopeful that is now a forgotten flop.

  1. The Story– It wouldn’t be unfair to say that a novel like the one The Goldfinch comes from may have been a little too grand for the big screen in its original form. No, I’m not subscribing to the notion may have shared that the book should have been adapted for television. Truth be told, as a novel it’s so jam packed with narrative, plot and subplot for its own good. If the novel could have been trimmed then so could the film version. The thing about film adaptations is that they were never meant to be literal translations. Quite frankly that’s what the limited series is for. A successful adaptation is able to capture the essence of the novel in question by distilling it into a narrative with the ability to flow well on film. But with so much novel in this novel (all of which is relevant to the main character’s journey), The Goldfinch may well fall into the category of the plain old unfilmable.

2. The Director– It can be argued that Crowley was just the wrong person to helm such a weighty property. There’s no disputing the filmmaker’s work. Brooklyn is such a thoughtful drama whose essence is thoroughly explored by its director. But with all the narrative ground The Goldfinch covers comes a plethora of emotional beats that are as up and down and different as the novel itself. It becomes clear early on that the director has trouble visualizing everything in a way that feels consistent. Although Crowley does succeed in making each of the worlds feel unique and intriguing in their own right, he’s unable to fully engage with any of them enough to have us believe in anything that happens within them. The director’s career will surely continue, but The Goldfinch suggests that maybe he’s not quite ready for a project of such a scope.

3. The Screenwriter– Crowley can’t take the behind-the-scenes blame alone, however. Screenwriter Peter Straughan was the one tasked with whittling down this sprawling novel down to cinematic shape. All film adaptations should always at least strive to be a greatest hits version of whatever novel is being brought to the screen. But Straughan makes the cardinal mistake of not wanting to omit anything from the original text, resulting in far too much information for the audience to consume without that much exposition to aid them. The thing is, The Goldfinch’s story is made for the big screen. To get to it however requires a skilled hand at recognizing what the book’s core sensibilities are and finding which sections bring them forward the most. With so much vital information concerning the main character, the challenge of adapting The Goldfinch is real, but not insurmountable.

4. The Cast– There are a lot of big names in The Goldfinch with Elgort, Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson and Finn Wolfhard, among the actors competing for screen time. That many characters populating the screen in what is ostensibly the story of a boy’s coming-of-age following a horrible tragedy would be fine if everyone on the screen wasn’t so distracting in ways which hampers The Goldfinch. Fegley and Elgort acquit themselves well playing the same character at different stages of life. Yet everyone that they come into contact with feels so uniformly miscast for the role they’ve been given. Actors can only do so much with what the material in front of them, but virtually every member of the cast finds themselves playing up textbook emotions of anger and grief and reacting in ways no one outside of a bestselling novel would.

5. The Marketing– The folks over in the marketing department didn’t help The Goldfinch too much with their campaign, even if their intentions were clearly admirable. The teaser trailer for the film is admittedly quite intriguing, packing in the majority of the film’s major points and characters. The whole teaser offers up glimpses of characters in the middle of scenes set to sweeping music. But there’s a bit of a deception going on here. While the trailer is forthcoming with the fact that The Goldfinch will be a movie brimming over with character and story, it also leads us to think that those behind the film can handle such a project and successfully deliver it to audiences. The follow-up trailer fares no better, offering up more of the film’s central mystery and carefully sorted clues, which promises that although The Goldfinch will be a very heavily-detailed and packed affair, it is one that will come together by the time the credits roll.

6. The Timing– Like many awards hopefuls, The Goldfinch had its world premiere at the high-profile Toronto International Film Festival in September where it was greeted with the lackluster response that would seal its doom. A planned wide release for the same month was scaled down considerably following poor reviews to the point where almost no theaters seemed to be showing it. Maybe the film would have had a better chance if producers would have released The Goldfinch closer to Christmas Day. With Just Mercy occupying the adult Christmas Day movie option, The Goldfinch might have benefited from such a slot, especially since its makers would have had ample time to trim some of the movie’s bloatedness into something far more easily digestible for audiences looking for that enriching holiday tear-jerker.

You may not believe me, but there are elements about The Goldfinch which work; and work quite well. In spite of everything I’ve laid out above, there are some merits to this overstuffed film. The Roger Deakins cinematography immediately reminds people of how lucky the film world is to have him and the score by Trevor Gureckis is both haunting and exquisite. Moreover, despite all the missteps, the journey of the main character secretly manages to get into the audience’s soul, making the ending of The Goldfinch a somewhat powerful one. There’s definitely a bittersweet feeling to the movie’s conclusion. On one level, it’s easy to be pleased by the fact that not all of the movie was a total loss before quickly realizing what a travesty it is that the other 85% of it was nowhere as good. So who is to blame for The Goldfinch? Ultimately the end result has to be chalked up to a combination of all of the above and the possibility that this project was just never meant to be. I’m not sure if The Goldfinch will ever be seen as anything other than an embarrassment for all involved, but if nothing else, the experience reminds everyone how the necessary ingredients mixed with the best of intentions don’t always guarantee a seat at the Oscars.

The Goldfinch is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Warner Bros.

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