The Goldfinch: From Fabritius to Crowley

Centered around a young man who steals Fabritius’ 1654 magum opus, “The Goldfinch”, the film of the same name opened to lackluster reviews on September 13th, 2019 after a premiere in the Toronto Film Festival. While the film is expertly crafted in a cinematic sense from Roger Deakins, the man of Blade Runner 2049 fame that won him the Oscar this previous awards season, it suffers from a brutal runtime – which, in the grand scheme of context and reason, is not an unfortunate thing to bear.

In 1654, Carel Fabritius was at the height of his career – a pupil of fellow Dutch master Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, he was a member of the Delft school, a school of painting thought throughout the mid-17th century that was based in Delft, which dealt with peasant life, cities, still life, and subjects that would generally be considered ‘mundane’ by a modern lens. Fabritius, his pupil, Mattias Spoors, and Simon Decker, a church deacon, died when he was thirty on October 12th, 1654, when a local gunpowder store exploded, killing hundreds and destroying portions of the city – in the explosion, most of Fabritius’ work was destroyed, leaving behind only a few – one of them, namely, The Goldfinch.

The Goldfinch, 1654 (Carel Fabritius)
oil on panel (33.5 by 22.8 cm)
Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands

It is only fitting and proper, that Ms. Donna Tartt would name her protagonist, Theo Decker, after Simon, and that a mirror situation would occur to him. While the film does not provide details of the bombing at the museum, we are given enough information so that we understand Theo’s perspective – the confusion, the chaos, and then the immortal painting that is The Goldfinch.

What the film does remarkably well is showcase emotion through the camera lens. Every shot contains meaning and purpose, beyond driving the character motivation or plot, but it allows the audience to visually experience the essence of what the painting represents. Later in the film, Theo is talking to his mentor and now business partner, Hobie, an antique shop owner, and Hobie reveals the nature of the painting and the eternity and meaning of art. It is an incredible speech that is expertly given. The composition of the film is internal – we are essentially looking into Theo’s life through the eyes of Fabritius’ little bird. Despite never saying anything, The Goldfinch itself, speaks more about the nature of humanity than any of the human characters. Perhaps it was the filmmakers’ intentions, or Deakin’s cinematography direction, but whatever the case – the golden color motif, the claustrophobic framing, accompanied with the piano heavy, haunting music by Trevor Gureckis, illustrates what every artist in history has ever attempted to convey and what Tartt understood perfectly well – art is “the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire”

Despite the well intentioned efforts of the filmmakers, the film received negative reviews from critics and resulted in $50 million loss for Amazon. The cinematography and writing aside, the film is almost needlessly long, and some of the acting is insufferable – namely, Natalie Portman, who delivers a bland, forgettable, wooden performance as Mrs. Barbour. Luke Wilson delivers a strong performance, but sometimes overbearing. While Finn Wolfhard is charming as Boris, as to be expected, his accent is sometimes lost and is rather inconsistent. The myriad of issues with this film mainly lie in the complexities of its source material being condensed into a lengthy, detailed, but simultaneously vague adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that results in a beautifully shot, lavishly written, but poorly managed film that is, not horrible, but lacking clarity as to what it wants to be. The film has merits in cinematography, writing, and overall design, but falters in the acting and pacing department.

Overall, while not a dismal viewing, The Goldfinch is a film that marvels at art and was expertly taking care of the look of the film, but forgot to tell its story.