The Goldfinch Fails to Take Flight

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

The Goldfinch, first and foremost, is a film about objects. Conversations are littered with references to various artists, shots are nearly overflowing with ornate trinkets that embellish lush sets, even the main character’s eventual occupation as an antique dealer focuses on peddling beautiful old things. The film even revolves around and takes its name from a singular painting, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. Based on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, The Goldfinch is a movie that seems almost as gilded as the objects it reveres. As an ambitious, sprawling adaptation, helmed by John Crowley of Brooklyn (2015) with cinematography by recent Academy Award winner Roger Deakins, The Goldfinch was poised to be the movie of the year, complete with a star-studded cast. Unfortunately, despite all its care for appearances, The Goldfinch leaves something to be desired.

To be fair, The Goldfinch had its work cut out for it. The plot tells the story of Ansel Elgort’s character Theodore Decker’s journey to adulthood, beginning with a terrorist attack that kills his mother. Young Theo then accidentally steals the titular painting that will become his lifeline as he grapples with grief and guilt throughout the rest of the story. It’s this character-driven narrative that proves a large obstacle for the adaptation as Theo moves from one vivid episode of his life into another (complete with time jumps!). Theo’s odyssey takes him from WASP-y New York City to desolate Las Vegas and back again, even to a crime-ridden Amsterdam (where the film opens). Along the way, Theo encounters a number of memorable characters, such as Nicole Kidman’s uptight society mother Mrs. Barbour and the volatile Ukrainian daredevil Boris, a role shared by Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard. Theo’s attachment to the painting remains the single common thread throughout it all.

With such a diverse array of settings, characters, and plotlines, The Goldfinch needs something to tie it all together. Luckily, this comes in the form of Roger Deakins’s masterful cinematography, which artfully unites every shot of the film – whether it takes place in the desert suburbs of Las Vegas or the Barbours’ elegant New York City penthouse – by replicating the color palette of the central painting to near perfection. Despite its flaws, The Goldfinch is a feast for the eyes, painted in rich golds, stark grays, and muted blues that underlines Theo’s obsession with the stolen artwork.

The ensemble cast of The Goldfinch certainly gives it their all as well. Ansel Elgort plays older Theo with a tension between a meticulous, put-together veneer and an underlying vulnerability and repression, particularly in the later scenes when Theo is tested by the consequences of his actions. Aneurin Barnard, as the firecracker adult Boris, gives perhaps what is the best performance of the film. He allows Boris’s good heart and love for Theo ground him as a sympathetic character while making his wild personality show through, all without making the character seem like an eccentric sideshow. In essence, he makes Boris believable and even lovable despite his flaws.

Many of the supporting characters err on the side of near-caricature like performances, but there are a few gems to be had. Jeffrey Wright’s Hobie, a patient antique restorer who is Theo’s mentor and father figure, anchors the entire film. In Theo’s crazy life, he is the one consistency that Theo can return to, and Wright plays this part with the brevity it deserves. Nicole Kidman delivers a polished performance per usual as the blue-blooded society mother Mrs. Barbour who takes Theo in as her own, but by the end, it’s clear that the directors have milked her role a little too much because her appearances start feeling like product placement.

Despite the cast and crew’s best efforts, The Goldfinch fails to land because of some major foundational flaws. The tone fails to find a consistent groove, and at points, the film seems as if it can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. The beginning in particular feels artificial and choppy. This is due to the decision to give the movie a nonlinear structure rather than follow the plot chronologically, which perhaps is the largest mistake the film makes as a whole. Rather than begin with the bombing, which instead is shown in snippets scattered about the length of the film and isn’t fully revealed to us until the very end, we start with Theo being taken in by the Barbours. This decision to leave out Theo’s trauma means that Theo’s close relationship with his mother, which gives believability to his grief, is sacrificed in favor of plot and unnecessary mystery. In doing so, the creators of the film have committed a grievous thematic oversight: They forget that the painting and Theo’s grief for his mother are intertwined. The painting is symbolic of Theo’s loss, and without establishing this key relationship, Theo’s motives and attachment to the painting he carries with him become shallow and superficial, thereby forsaking the entire theme of the film.

Without this essential meaning, The Goldfinch feels devoid of a message. By side-stepping one of the most important aspects of the story, the film is unable to fully convey the power of the original novel. Although it is well-acted, technically polished, and visually stunning, inconsistency in tone and theme oversight means The Goldfinch fails to pack a punch where it matters. “And isn't the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?” asks Donna Tartt in one of the key points of her original novel. Indeed, The Goldfinch may seem like a pretty thing, but ironically, that lack of connection to a larger idea is what ultimately deprives it of true beauty and a point to its existence.

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