Arts movie review

‘The Goldfinch’ moves little more than a still picture

The movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel remains chained down by its length

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Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort star as Mrs. Barbour and Theo Decker, respectively, in "The Goldfinch."
Courtesy of Lior Hirschfeld

The Goldfinch
Directed by John Crowley
Screenplay by Peter Straughan
Starring Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Finn Wolfhard, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson
Rated R, Now Playing

They say the book is always better. To be fair, there are probably a few exceptions, but this is definitely not one of them.

The Goldfinch opens with Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort), visibly anxious and depressed, in an Amsterdam hotel room. Years earlier, young Theo (Oakes Fegley) is visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum with his mother when a bomb explodes and kills her. Before Theo leaves the ruined museum, an old man grabs hold of him, cryptically tells him to take a painting called The Goldfinch, and hands him a ring to give to “Hobart and Blackwell” before dying. Unbeknownst to anybody else, Theo takes The Goldfinch. The rest of the movie tracks how Theo remains burdened by secrecy and trauma while dealing with an abusive father, an impossible love, and a drug addiction.

One of the few people who does care for Theo is Mrs. Barbour, played by Nicole Kidman, who appears at times to be simply copying and pasting her own performance as Celeste Wright from Big Little Lies. (On another note, Denis O’Hare, also in Big Little Lies, delivers an infuriatingly stunning performance here as Lucius Reeve, who suspects early on that Theo stole The Goldfinch.) Kidman’s self-plagiarism is less apparent in the second half of the film when her character becomes more emotionally vulnerable, though it may also be due to her SNL-esque aging makeup that glares at the forefront. More than the makeup, though, it’s the length of the movie — two-and-a-half hours — that drags her and the rest of the talented cast down.

It’s not that long movies are necessarily bad. Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece Roma ran over two hours, but its artistry leaves viewers in awe and makes it worth watching. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is even longer than The Goldfinch, but its unique premise and engaging yet relatable storyline marks it as one of the best movies of the 21st century. The problem with The Goldfinch is that it does not have enough redeeming qualities or any reason to be that long, so you’re left wondering, “When is this going to end?”

On top of that, there’s the problem that The Goldfinch tries to be too many things at once and fails at almost all of them. Nonetheless, one of the film’s redeeming qualities is that its comedic bits work unexpectedly well, providing necessary relief from an often overly dramatic plotline. The prominent and jarring music during tense and emotional scenes, for instance, feels overbearing and greatly detracts from the movie. 

The film also attempts to enhance its artistry by jumping back and forth to mimic memories; instead, it succeeds only at being confusing and losing a great part of the sentimentality of its source material. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Theo mentions that The Goldfinch is his mother’s favorite painting, lending it more emotional weight as he seeks to protect it. The movie, however, leaves this tidbit for the end, which doesn’t help its already drab and uneven parts. That said, the film’s ending does bring about some catharsis when all the clues that have been laid out mesh together. If not for the strange pacing of the movie, Theo’s journey could have been more impactful.

On the other hand, thanks to Oscar-winning director of photography Roger Deakins, The Goldfinch does succeed at creating a visually emotional experience with skillful cinematography. Something about the way monochromatic shots of gray rubble blend with young Theo’s jacket is incredibly unsettling, while the widespread use of blue tones in the Barbours’ home distinguishes it from the rest of Theo’s world. Close-ups on young Theo’s face reveal Fegley’s acting chops as he unfailingly captures Theo’s rollercoaster of emotions. Unfortunately, however, this aesthetic satisfaction is not enough to save the movie as a whole. 

Ultimately, The Goldfinch has trouble giving its celebrated story and skilled cast the direction that they are capable of. You may be better off rereading the book than sitting through these two and a half hours.