Review: ‘The Goldfinch’ is elegant but perplexingly flawed |

Review: ‘The Goldfinch’ is elegant but perplexingly flawed

Warner Bros.
Ansel Elgort (left) and Ashleigh Cummings in a scene from “The Goldfinch,” in theaters Sept. 13.
Warner Bros.
Jeffrey Wright (left) and Oakes Fegley in a scene from “The Goldfinch”
Warner Bros.
Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in a scene from “The Goldfinch”

Everything is beautiful in John Crowley’s adaptation of “The Goldfinch,” even the grilled cheese sandwich that a kind stranger makes for a boy who has just lost his mother.

It’s easy to get swept up by the refined stateliness surrounding this messy odyssey of grief and trauma. But like its well-pressed and repressed Anglo-Saxon protagonists, the film keeps the drama, the emotion and the catharsis at a tidy and safely compartmentalized distance, making the experience of sitting with this 2½ hour film a unique and perplexing one.

Adapted from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Goldfinch” isn’t a failure, but it’s not a success either. It’s an ambitious effort from a horde of talented people, including Crowley, cinematographer Roger Deakins and actors like Nicole Kidman, that gets a bit lost in its literary quirks while attempting to do everything and include everyone.

It’s the kind of dense, decade-spanning material that perhaps would have been better served by a miniseries like HBO has done with “My Brilliant Friend.” But they chose the middle ground: A very long movie that requires patience, at least a little knowledge of the book and some forgiveness for the things that just don’t work at all (namely the romantic subplots).

“The Goldfinch” is about a man, Theo Decker (played at 13 by Oakes Fegley and as an adult by Ansel Elgort), who is bound by a childhood trauma that he’s never been able to convince himself was not his fault.

His mother died, along with many others, in a bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The only reason they were there was because he’d been accused of smoking in school and were killing time looking at her favorite paintings before a meeting with the principal.

Two things that happen in the minutes after the devastating explosion will come to define his life.

First, a dying man asks Theo to take his ring back to his business partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright). Then, Theo takes something else: Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting “The Goldfinch,” which he smuggles out through the chaos and keeps as a kind of anchor of guilt and shame.

Flashing back between the aftermath of the tragedy and present day, in which Theo is a grief-wracked, drug-addled and bespoke suit-wearing New York antique dealer who’s about to get married and contemplating suicide, the film saves showing the explosion till the very end.

It’s an interesting storytelling choice, considering it is a prominent part of the trailer. But it may also be the thing that gets in the way of the audience connecting to Theo’s journey from the beginning.

Fegley sells his part, however, and after a little adjustment to the rhythms of the film, it’s hard not to be drawn in by this young man who no one seems to want to help or counsel in any real way. Even the Barbours, the extremely wealthy and formal family who takes him into their uptown home, offer little actual comforting. Kidman plays the icily compassionate matriarch.

Theo’s story gets more complicated when his deadbeat father (Luke Wilson) reemerges and takes him away from all the culture and tweed and plops him down in a soulless, recession-stricken Las Vegas suburb. There his only friend is the vampiric Boris (Finn Wolfhard, with a vaguely Russian accent) who introduces him to vodka and pills.

Naturally, the descent is set to Radiohead.

“The Goldfinch” is stoic and sad, occasionally brilliant and more often confusing.

Adult Theo is far less engaging than his 13-year-old counterpart. Perhaps it’s a casting problem or due to the plot lines getting too abundant and too absurd.

People from his past re-enter his life and tragedy follows him everywhere. And then there is an unforgivably underdeveloped love story between Theo and a woman named Pippa, another bombing survivor, not to mention his fiancee.

His search for release, or redemption, is rushed and overly complicated. It may have worked for Tartt’s novel, but as a film, the depths of this story are lost in translation — a flat reproduction that looks and sounds a lot like the masterpiece, but you know deep down that something is off.

Categories: AandE | Movies TV
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.