the goldfinch

review by mia sherry

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in  The Goldfinch .

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch.

Before its release, The Goldfinch seemed a likely contender in the major awards circuit for 2019. However, much like the central character Theo Decker’s downfall, since it opened to luke-warm reviews at the Toronto Film Festival,it has quickly descended into one of 2019’s biggest failures. From trailers that could use only a singular review that celebrated rather than condemned the film, to Ansel Elgort weepily lamenting critics’ cruelty and begging his ardent instagram followers to “take your mom to see it” over the weekend; it’s not looking good for The Goldfinch. I watched all this unfold with an unbiased (if, incredibly amused) eye, and hoped perhaps I’d have something better to say. 

Warning: Ansel Elgort, read no further.

Here’s the upside: it’s not a totally desolate film. Here’s the bad side: it’s not much else, either. When I found myself looking back on it and the things I enjoyed, I came back to the same crux; that I liked the film despite, and rarely because. This I can only attribute to my prior (and recent) reading of the book on which it is based. The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort), who, after being caught in a bombing in an art gallery, steals Carel Fabritius’ painting “The Goldfinch”. This becomes the catalyst that leads Theo into a world of art, forgery and theft. I knew this, having read the book. I realised about halfway through the film that had I not, I would have had very little clue as to what was actually happening. This is my major critique of the film, and one I come back to time and time again; its plotting is messy and inconsistent. I ended up relying on my knowledge from the book frequently throughout the film.

The other unforgivable aspect of this film is, surprisingly, the performances. Let’s get the good ones out of the way: this is Nicole Kidman at her best. She was pulling out every Oscar-bait trick in the book, from the classic subtle tear-welling, to the delicate but believable portrayal of a New York socialite worn down from privileged white-women problems; she handled them all with deft and seamless grace. 

“I realised about halfway through the film that, had I not read the book, I would have had very little clue as to what was actually happening.

As for the others, they don’t fare quite so well. The supporting characters end up working overtime to liven up Oakes Fegley’s performance as a young Theo Decker. Similarly, Ansel Elgort, who tries so desperately to uphold the mighty weight of this film, falls victim to his own scene-chewing. Instead of the polished and graceful emotional turns that Nicole Kidman gave, Elgort instead (whether deliberately or not) decided to communicate every emotion Theo might have had through his nostrils, in a move that might have come straight from the Joey Tribbiani ‘smell the fart’ school of acting. One of the most distracting features of the entire film, his nose flares up and down on repeat to convey grief, confusion, fear. 

What makes this film so hard to review is that, while it is undoubtedly not so great, its last act could be argued to save it. Tight and well executed; it offers a satisfying resolution and some great chemistry between Elgort and Aneurin Barnard as Boris, Theo’s childhood friend. No matter how it dresses itself up, though, nothing can deny that, beneath the facade of a slick soundtrack and fancy interior shots, The Goldfinch is a hollow ghost of its source material and the capabilities of its actors. So sorry, Ansel Elgort, but I don’t think I’ll be bringing my mom to see it this weekend. Maybe we’ll watch it together when it makes its inevitable way onto Film4 - because though The Goldfinch might be worth your time, it’s certainly not worth your money. 

The Goldfinch will open to Irish theatres on September 27th.