'The Goldfinch' Review: John Crowley Paints A Portrait Of Loss And Longing [TIFF 2019]

How do you make a movie out of The Goldfinch? It's the question book lovers have been asking themselves since John Crowley's adaptation was announced last year. And it's true that Donna Tartt's thoughtful, decades-spanning, continent-hopping story of a boy and a painting doesn't really lend itself to an action-packed feature film, but if you're in the bag for a 150-minute meditation on grief, guilt and the power of beauty, then hey, The Goldfinch is for you.

But to be fair, this viewer was genuinely surprised to discover that the film reached the two-and-a-half-hour mark, as The Goldfinch remains so elegant and engaging as to rather speed by. It starts with a disaster: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been bombed, and 13-year-old Theo Decker (a remarkable Oakes Fegley) loses his mother in the attack. The tragedy irrevocably alters the course of Theo's life, linking him to two vastly different families (Jeffrey Wright and Ashleigh Cummings as Hobie and Pippa, and the Barbours, whose graceful matriarch is played by Nicole Kidman), and to one miraculous painting: The Goldfinch, a thing of light in a world of darkness.

Theo's newly amended fate spins him in a dozen different directions: to Vegas with his layabout father and crummy stepmom (Luke Wilson and Sarah Paulson), where he befriends Boris, a big-hearted, cosmopolitan drug abuser played as a child by Finn Wolfhard and as an adult by Aneurin Barnard. It takes Theo, now grown and played by Ansel Elgort, back to New York where he reconnects with the Barbours, including a romance with Willa Fitzgerald's Kitsey, though Theo's heart has always belonged to Pippa. It puts him in the path of Denis O'Hare in a characteristically sinister role as arts collector Lucius Reeve, and all the way to Amsterdam where The Goldfinch takes a shockingly violent turn, finally delivering the action that viewers might expect from a star-studded Hollywood movie. The performances are uniformly great, with Fegley, Wright, Kidman and Paulson providing the highlights.

But focusing on the plot and the characters of The Goldfinch feels a little bit like missing the point, like reading the museum labels at the Met but never looking at the art. While Crowley's adaptation is quite faithful to Tartt's novel – perhaps to a fault, as the deliberate pacing and mysterious unveiling of information appear to have alienated many viewers – the film feels more like a gorgeous piece of emotional art than a straightforward story. The great Roger Deakins shot The Goldfinch, and it's rich and textured and golden, as filled with light and darkness, hope and sadness, as the painting at the center of its plot.

Theo's life is like that painting – of a gorgeous little bird, posture alight yet chained to an inescapable prison. Theo is drawn to beauty, and has a special connection to it, to antiques and fine art and alluring people. But in that way of children and even adults who are traumatized by life-changing tragedy, Theo believes his mother's death is his fault – for the silliest and most unshakable of reasons – and so he believes that everything that has come after is his fault, too. Crowley takes such care with this, The Goldfinch's loveliest and most devastating truth: that guilt and beauty can live in the same space, "that maybe sometimes good can come from bad," that sometimes maybe that's the only way to the good, is through the bad.

It's quite a bit to chew on in one movie, and the message is occasionally muddled through all of the subplots and new settings and the deep sea of characters. But at the end, Crowley's film remains true to the heartbreaking beauty of Tartt's story in the most important of ways. It's a film of beauty and grief, light and pain, sometimes confusing and always compelling. It's a lot like life that way.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10