Five years ago, I visited the Netherlands. I went to Mauritshuis, an art museum in The Hague, which was stocked full of paintings by all the Dutch greats. There was Rembrandt and his luxurious, heady Golden Age works; Vermeer, whose one small swipe of light on the earring of Girl with a Pearl Earring was nothing short of magical; Frans Hals, whose slack coarse brushwork conjured up fantastic character. And then presented alone, on a wall by itself, was Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, in a pocket-sized frame: a plump, feathered flurry of tans, beiges, browns and gold ― a tiny bird on a giant wall. I was standing there, looking at it, and a woman in a suit passed by. She was organising a visual exhibition. Referring to the picture, she said, with a slight measure of disdain: “They put this on its own wall. It’s famous now, because of the novel.”
To be honest, this novel was why I was looking so intently at that painting in the first place — I had just finished reading Donna Tartt’s bestseller The Goldfinch, which follows the long and tumultuous life of a boy, Theodore Decker, starting from the moment he steals the painting during the aftermath of an explosion in an art museum. In the novel, Tartt characterises the portrait with no gushing descriptor spared. In one scene, Theo uncovers it in a bright, spacious room, and “the atmosphere it breathed was like the light-rinsed airiness of a wall opposite an open window.” It was made of “sinewy wings; scratched pinfeather. The speed of his brush is visible, the sureness of his hand, paint dashed thick.” Tartt gloriously attributed to this small oil bird the whole sweeping spectrum of cerebral and haptic feeling — of boldness, of tenderness, of humour, of the soft and the brittle, of dignity and vulnerability. And so of course I had to see it — Tartt’s penmanship inflated the artwork with a sense of greatness, and perhaps even more alluringly, of celebrity. But looking at it in that museum, I was, well… disappointed (I instead spent most of my time dazed by Rembrandt’s monstrous The Anatomy Lesson, which had this almost terrifying presence — it felt as if it sucked all the air out of the room). The Goldfinch felt, to me, just okay. Well-painted, but, if stripped of its notoriety, its sole-wall designation, it felt like something I could easily pass by, amongst tableaus of mouldy fruit and grassy landscapes. Without context, it was just a simple painting of a yellow bird.
This particular artwork does not appear much in the latest iteration in the goldfinch oeuvre — a film by Brooklyn (2015) director John Crowley, who adapts Tartt’s novel. Though awarded titular importance, this painting is not the star of the film, relegated instead to brief, stunted cameos — the bird hazy in near grayscale in a dusty post-explosion gallery; the bird peeking out from bright yellow fabric; the bird sitting inside a briefcase amidst a gunfight. Though intended as a symbol of artistic posterity, its two-second appearances signify instead a slippery impermanence, one characteristic of a cheap metaphor, placed shallowly in the grand scheme of Theo’s life. Even The Anatomy Lesson, which Theo passes by amongst the wreckage, is more beautiful and startling in its few haunting seconds of screen time than The Goldfinch is in The Goldfinch.
This is my first complaint, but this single misstep serves really as the tip of the first cinder in this dumpster fire of a movie. Since it’s all been covered before, I’ll keep the trash talk quick. In The Goldfinch, Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan, in a stunning maltreatment of creative licence, take Donna Tartt’s monumental, glorious beast of a novel — which poetically entangles themes of loss, art, love, and dependency over the stretch of a child and adult’s life — and split it into a thousand inconsequential snippets of plot. They then arrange these moments in a chronology that, inexplicably, withholds as much meaning for as long as possible. The million bright coincidences that Tartt delights in in her novel are reduced in Crowley’s adaptation to a flip book of forced plot-points, and the neck-breaking speed at which they flash by abandons plausibility and pathos in one. The Goldfinch’s holistic fault can be perhaps encapsulated by an apt painting analogy — that when you mix completely together the entire spectrum of colours in paint, it creates a dungy, muddy, dullish brown — an astounding neutrality — the logic-defying staleness of something not yet ripe.
But peering closer, some specks of beauty appear — moments of clarity, glimpses of tenderness, small pockets of breathing space where performances are given a few precious seconds to resonate. There is something beautiful and unbearably tragic in the character transformation of Mrs Barbour, the matriarch of a family who takes Theo in after his mother’s death, who, played by Nicole Kidman, abandons her initial graceful chilly distance over the span of eight or so years for a weary, ailing gentleness. And Oakes Fegley, who plays young Theo, shows convincingly on his features the ringing numbness of loss, and later, the unhappy contortions of grief. In the Las Vegas scenes, Fegley acts alongside Finn Wolfhard who plays young Boris, a Ukrainian schoolmate with an abusive father and dead mother, and they have a fantastic boyish chemistry as they snack, drink, smoke, and snort their way through long airless summer days. If only the film solely followed young Theo, instead of letting Ansel Elgort take over as adult Theo, and harden Fegley’s mixture of helplessness and stubbornness into a much more distasteful combination of self-pity and arrogance.
Though The Goldfinch falls far short of the sum of its parts, it’s easy to imagine that some of its scenes could belong to a better movie — one which realises that the task of shuttling a 700+ page novel into two and a half hours requires the glossing over of some plot points, some characters, some moments. It is The Goldfinch’s fastidious obedience to its sprawling source narrative that is its biggest mistake. But the film’s keen reverence of all of its story’s tumultuous, beautiful immortalities — of art, love, friendship, connection, even to a single small painting of a chained bird given little screen-time — is somewhat endearing and perhaps even a tiny bit poignant. If only these good intentions were more fully developed; if only The Goldfinch left its shallow waters.
At some point in the movie, someone realises the painting to be lost, and admonishes the loser: “Miracle after miracle, it survives, until you.” He’d might as well be talking to the film itself. For Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, to have survived a factory explosion, to have survived centuries, to have been granted literary fame, to be given its own wall, and to now be tarnished by confusing, flaw-riddled Oscar-bait — Crowley, how could you? But I guess, in the end (and rather comfortingly), it doesn’t matter either way, which is what the story of the goldfinch, and its immortality, is all about. Art carries with it the currency of meaning, constantly reshaping and reforming, iridescent from one spectator to the next. The goldfinch remains, whether in oils or in words or in celluloid. And the original yellow bird itself, sitting on a wall somewhere in The Hague, proud and unmoving under the eyes of hundreds and thousands of sceptical tourists, will carry on retaining this meaning, recycled through books and movies and essays and reflections. And it’ll remain, for likely longer than any of our lifetimes, shackled to a golden band, staring steadily at a place that just escapes us.
The Goldfinch is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing.