The Goldfinch - a tale of loss and grief
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
John Crowley comes back with a bold adaptation of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. The films follows a 13 year old Theo as his life is turned upside down when a bomb explodes in the Metropolitan Museum. This day he loses his mum and the only thing he can cling to is Fabritius's Goldfinch. It's a coming of age tale but also a film about grief and letting go. John Crowley continues his exploration of New York after Brooklyn with this adaptation. John Crowley's directing is as mysterious as the title.
The film opens on an older Theo contemplating suicide and confessing to something we now nothing about. Then we are brought back to the 13 year old Theo after the bombing. For quite sometime we do not really see what happened. It takes the whole 2 hours and a half to fully put the pieces back together. This is what's so genius about it : our curiosity is always on the edge. We want to know but we can't. The obscene voyeurism of the standard person is not satisfied. As Theo's journey go, slowly we see him in the museum, looking at the girl, then after the bombing, taking the painting, walking around. Just as Theo grieves and learns to let go, he is able to fully accept the event and therefore we are able to access it. It deals with trauma in a very interesting way. It's like we were in his memory, we had trouble remembering. It's such an effective way to be sensitive but also engage the audience and convey the difficulty of it. We see the face of the mum only when he is ready to face the events and has fully processed them.
Very quickly, even though we only understand later how he came into possession of it, it appears that Theo left the bombed museum with the masterpiece the Goldfinch. Considered lost in the bombing no searches are done. We see him hold that painting as if he was holding his mum. As if the painting was the link between him and her. But Theo could also be the bird chained. Chained to his grief and loss he can not move past. He never looks at it but holds it at various moments of his life. The same shot of Theo sitting on the floor and holding the painting appears throughout the film with only Theo getting older. The more he clings to the painting, the less he moves on. Losing the painting is for him a traumatic event disconnecting him from his loss. It is losing the only tangible link between the death of his mum and him.
The painting is returned when Theo has to mourn and move past the traumatic events of his youth. The Goldfinch finding the light of a museum is Theo forced to let go. Theo forced to give up his own chains unlike the Goldfinch. He couldn't do it on his own. He had to be forced.
Unlike Donna Tartt's novel, its film adaptation does not tie all the story lines. The audience doesn't know if Theo breaks off his engagement, ends up with Pippa. The audience leaves Theo beginning a new chapter of his life after his learnt resilience. The film never moves toward a clear cut ending. The Goldfinch is a slice of Theo's journey - from the trauma to overcoming it. The end is not the end goal. The journey is what the film and narrative focuses on.
More than a great story, in a world of sequels, prequels and cinematic universes, the Goldfinch stands out. Adapted from a novel, it reminds us that original stories can be written, that worlds can be created, that such complex characters in a world similar to ours could come to life from someone's imagination to our local screens. Sitting in the Edinburgh Filmhouse, I doubted that it was a made-up story. Everything felt so real I was sure it was based on a true story but I didn't remember seeing these words during the credits. Of course, it was not. This story is a creation of Donna Tartt so subtle and authentic with such a deep understanding of human nature that it blurs the limit between fiction and reality.