What is it about sprawling descriptions of antique stores and art theft that gets the people going? Donna Tartt seems to know, as her heart-wrenching, Bonnie and Clyde-esque drama centered on the theft of a classic painting has recently become quite a hot topic. The movie adaptation of the Secret History author’s more recent novel, The Goldfinch, initially raised concern among readers who are aware of its seven hundred page presence. Many doubted that it could even be adapted at all, due to both its length and content. A majority of the enormous novel is internal monologue, which is often difficult to translate on the screen. The film includes a star-studded cast as well, with actors such as Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Finn Wolfhard, Aneurin Banard and Willa Fitzgerald.
The Goldfinch follows the story of Theo Decker, an unintentional art thief and unreliable narrator, throughout his troubled youth and adulthood. After losing his mother in a bombing, Theo is burdened by a lifetime of grief, along with the guilt of her death and stealing a valuable painting. In the midst of the museum terror attack, he is handed Fabritius’ Goldfinch and, for the majority of his childhood and adult life, it becomes his darkest secret and most prized possession. He lugs the painting from New York to Vegas, eventually chasing it to Amsterdam a decade after it was stolen one particular drug-fueled night by his close, borderline-criminal friend, Boris Pavlikovsky. And while it is not a love story, it is a story filled with lost love and rekindled relationships. Recurring themes of grief, PTSD and addiction are heavily explored and emphasized in the film as well. Another important plot point: there is also an adorable dog named Popchyk, which is shared by Theo and Boris in their Vegas adolescence. The beloved lapdog is a charming and extremely necessary additional touch. With a variety of settings, characters and themes, paired with Tartt’s renowned neo-romantic writing style, The Goldfinch is gorgeous, unpredictable and crushing.
And after premiering at the 2019 TIFF film festival, it was instantly met with shockingly horrible reviews. Too slow. Too choppy. Disappointing romance plots. And that’s to put it mildly. Its failure even trended on Twitter.
Besides the general discontent, a major factor of the movie’s criticism was the fact that many critics did not read or enjoy the source novel. As a viewer who has read the novel, I was prepared for its drawn-out antique scenes and borderline snail pacing. Those who were unfamiliar with such elements found it to be a tedious film, as they weren’t prepared to listen to the antique shop’s owner, Hobie, debate the authenticity of vintage chairs for ten minutes. Some who did read the novel claimed they didn’t enjoy the non-linear plot that often veered from the original, or that the actors simply did not capture the characters well enough. All are valid claims, but some are rather unjustified and others are quite frankly misunderstood.
The editing was abrupt, jumping back and forth from Theo’s adult life and childhood, often showing the before-and-after aspect of the bombing. While one might view this style as choppy or amateur, it represented the effects and flashbacks that tend to stem from PTSD accurately. The editing style was an attempt to emphasize Theo’s trauma in a way that allowed the audience to feel his effects and understand that he never could truly move on from his past in a linear way. His life after the attack was not a start-to-finish story; he always ventured back to his past because it never truly left him. The majority of films do tend to follow a linear, or at least more-organized, structure, which might make The Goldfinch’s plotline and editing style seem unconventional or unattractive to some viewers.
Another constant grievance was the movie’s pacing. Some scenes and settings lasted longer than others, some just felt like an eternity. Many movies last less than two hours, often lasting an hour and a half. The reason why the film seems so slow at some points is because of the pace of the story itself. New York City, especially the scenes with the Barbours and the terrorist attack, was often long and drawn-out, spanning tens of pages at a time. But the moments where Theo and Boris were tearing up Vegas, high as could be, were often quick and sporadic, which could explain the seemingly short and rapid Vegas scenes. Grief itself is slow, especially when coming to terms with it. Scenes in the museum and scenes where Theo is sad were possibly the slowest, as he was still struggling to gain closure and reach the other side of his trauma. The movie’s pacing might be slow, but it serves a purpose. Those painstaking scenes represent his long and unbearable grieving process, and the quicker ones represent Theo’s wild nights and rushes of euphoria as he ran around the desert at all hours with his newfound Ukrainian friend.
Donna Tartt herself has stated she doesn’t write love stories—at least not yet—but there are strong elements of both love and heartbreak throughout the story. The romantic plot lines were deemed weak, mainly due to the fact that both his childhood crush and fiancée essentially just leave him in the dust. We see Theo fall madly in “love” with a fellow survivor, Pippa, who wanders in and out of his life as they mature. We watch her break his heart, explaining that she had to choose her own mental health and recovery over staying with him. And through tears, he obliges. What he felt was not love though; instead, it was the infatuation with the connection they both shared from experiencing the same trauma. It was rather disappointing for those rooting for them in the end, but in reality, his dependence on her is unhealthy for both of them and their recoveries. His heart is broken yet again as he catches his fiancée, Kitsey, kissing his old schoolmate—Tom Cable—the one that essentially led to his mother’s death after landing Theo in the principal’s office for sneaking cigarettes into middle school. Elgort keeps the tears flowing for another solid minute and cannot seem to catch a break. But despite these failed relationships, there is one that remains consistent, despite a decade apart.
What could easily be interpreted as adolescent behavior and platonic friendship is actually much more than our misleading narrator lets on. Boris held him throughout his teenage years and made sure he had food on the table. He helped him escape his home life and always had the best intentions in mind for Theo. Despite John Crowley’s statement debunking any romantic plot between the two, both Finn Wolfhard (young Boris) and Aneurin Barnard (old Boris) seem to imply otherwise with longing stares and unsaid yet obvious emotion. Despite ten years apart, the two pick back up right where they left off, hopping in Boris’ new ride and getting high. Boris, though he stole the painting and dragged him to Amsterdam, never let Theo down or intended to. Though their feelings are brushed off as friendship, Boris is quite possibly the most shaping and caring influence in Theo’s life, and he loved him more than Pippa and Kitsey could. They had a connection outside of the attack’s trauma and often helped each other rather than relying on the other as a crutch. While the novel itself might not be a love story, Aneurin and Finn played their character in such an affectionate manner that one might suspect otherwise.
What many critics fail to see is that, despite him not ending up with Pippa or Kitsey, he still has his closest and arguably his most important relationship left. Whether they have taken Crowley’s statement to heart or just didn’t acknowledge what Theo and Boris had in favor of Boris’ female counterparts, they completely misunderstood what little love-centric plotline there was.
The Goldfinch tells the story of a boy who lost his mother and was given opioids by his absent father’s drug-dealing girlfriend to cope. It is the painful story of a lifetime of looming trauma and guilt. It is slow and gritty, and it placed viewers in the shoes of a man suffering from PTSD from a terrorist attack and the drawn-out process of grief. It is the story of unrequited love, unjust loss and decades of pining. It has been highly anticipated and carefully crafted by talented directors and screenwriters, along with Donna Tartt herself. Though it was not well received, it has unmistakably genius effects and haunting emotion laced throughout. While opinions on subjective matters like writing and film always vary, The Goldfinch was misinterpreted, and because of that, its beauty went gravely unrecognized and unappreciated.
The Goldfinch was released September 13.
Featured image via The Goldfinch Movie