The Goldfinch review – Donna Tartt's art-theft epic has its wings clipped | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week

Nicole Kidman’s fine cameo cannot save an infuriating adaptation that renders a complex novel in broad brushstrokes

Despite A-list talent either side of the camera, something has gone worryingly wrong with this adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel from 2013, directed by John Crowley. It’s as if all the book’s unwieldy and digressive aspects have hypnotised the film-makers, who want to do justice to the writerly aspects of Tartt’s extravagant Dickensian adventure, all that fetishistic connoisseur detail. But they have mislaid or underplayed the straightforwardly exciting set pieces that could have put some voltage back into the film.

The film is co-financed by Amazon Studios and maybe it would have worked better as an eight-part TV drama. As it is, the story is all effortfully squeezed into two and a half hours, but with key moments suddenly whizzing past as if on fast-forward, and the most explosively important part bafflingly relegated to flashback fragments that never come together in a single, compelling scene.

It should also be said that the casting and performances are, in some crucial cases, seriously off. A gambling addict deprived of money does a lot of histrionic screaming. And, as for the Russian characters: well, they do not have to be played by Russian actors of course, but the non-Russians given the job have to do something more than spyeak yin an uncyonvincying Ryussian accyent.

Oakes Fegley does well with the role of 13-year-old Theo Decker, the child of a broken home in New York who one day visits the city art museum with his mother; they find themselves looking at Carel Fabritius’s 1654 painting The Goldfinch, the bird chained to the post, a poignant image of beauty and imprisonment. At this moment, a terrorist bomb rips through the museum building – a quasi-9/11 outrage without political motive that initiates a tragic chain of events.

Theo’s mother is killed. As he groggily regains consciousness among the dust, rubble and bodies, a dying man whom Theo had initially noticed with a little girl is also still alive and, before expiring, entrusts him with a ring and gives him a place to deliver it. Theo impulsively takes The Goldfinch off the wall and staggers out of the building with it in his bag. Among the chaos of cops, firefighters and paramedics, no one thinks to challenge him. Theo is at first taken in by his friend’s elegant mother (a tremendous cameo from Nicole Kidman), but is then sent to live with his louche and grasping dad (Luke Wilson) in Las Vegas, where he befriends a Ukrainian kid, Boris (Finn Wolfhard).

Poor Theo grows up to be a damaged and Vicodin-addicted adult (played by Ansel Elgort), who hides his hurt under a veneer of bogus sophistication having undergone a Ripleyesque reinvention as a smooth and crooked antiques dealer under the tutelage of kindly expert Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), to whom the ring had led him. But the priceless painting, which Theo has secretly under wraps in a storage depot, throbs like a second, unexploded bomb, and he is destined to meet up again with grownup Boris (Aneurin Barnard).

Oakes Fegley and Finn Wolfhard.
Desert idlers … Oakes Fegley and Finn Wolfhard. Photograph: Macall Polay/Allstar/Warner Bros

The Goldfinch stands, in Theo’s mind, for his mother, for the terrible fact of her absence: it is the poignant symbol of irrecoverable loss and hurt. All the painting’s supposed value as an immortal thing of beauty has now been simultaneously supercharged and yet diminished by the association. The movie does a fair amount of justice to the painting’s MacGuffin-ish properties. But long episodes clunk past rather laboriously and Elgort does not give us much access to his character’s emotional tumult. (Kidman, on the other hand, plays her character arc well.)

It all comes down to the extraordinary scene that triggers everything else: the bomb in the art gallery. In the book it is a riveting, complex, detailed affair. As for the film, it is quite legitimate to avoid the on-the-nose storytelling, but this is frustratingly deferred and dispersed as flashback glimpses and, bewilderingly, we are never allowed the simple thrill of piecing it all together in order. The pure power of that detonation is muffled. And the carpark shootout at the end: that is dispensed with hurriedly, as if the film wishes to rise above mere action entertainment.

It’s a shame. The film always looks good under the eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins, and screenwriter Peter Straughan renders some elegant and amusing dialogue, but this Goldfinch stays earthbound.

  • The Goldfinch is released in the UK on 27 September.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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