The painting at the center of The Goldfinch is an example of trompe l’oeil, a flat painted surface that “tricks the eye” into believing it is three-dimensional.In the case of Carel Fabritius‘ small painting of 1654, the image is of a goldfinch perched on a wall-mounted stand. On closer examination, the viewer notices that the bird is chained to the stand. It is a subtle and striking work, but like most examples of tromp l’oeil, it is most effective when seen from a distance. Get too close and the signs of the artist’s hand breaks the illusion.
In the case of John Crowley’s film version of Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, one need not look too closely before the magic dissolves. This is a film that tries to do too much, cover too much ground, and continuously takes short cuts, which in the end and throughout the 2 1/2 hour playtime, keeps the film from ever truly engaging the audience. Instead, we are aware of the story being sewn together, of holes in the plot being patched with painful leaps, truncations, or wild coincidences; of a few three-dimensional characters surrounded by stereotypes; and of mysteries that, rather than intriguing us, instead frustrate or bore.
In spite of Roger Deakins’ beautiful imagery, The Goldfinch never becomes the prestige film it longs to be. Instead, it remains a messy character study of a young man seeking moral and emotional footing in a world (and a plot) that keeps shifting beneath him. This is not helped by the choice to have the actors portraying Theodore Decker (Oakes Finley and Ansel Elgort) play the wounded protagonist encased in a such a shell of shock and survival that it’s hard to find a way in.
Finley plays a somewhat believable child and teen, but Elgort in many way squeezes down the character. Despite one framing meltdown, his performance is so restrained as to hint at an interior vacuum. As a result, when he does need to emote and telegraph real pain, a tear might appear behind his glasses but not much more. This could be interesting, a way for the audience to be drawn through empathy into Theodore’s suffering and coping. But too often this is betrayed by a plot turn or coincidence that makes one flinch or ache.
It’s only fair to mention that within this mess there were some solid performances. Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, the antiques restorer, certainly has the most integrity and essence. His pain seems the most genuine, and of course he is given the defining monologue tying the meaning of art, The Goldfinch in particular, to our transitory and befuddled lives. Nicole Kidman’s Mrs. Barbour has times when one wondered what was behind her penetrating stares. Unfortunately, this film was not particularly interested in showing us. Luke Wilson plays a dude and Sarah Paulson his low-brow girlfriend. Neither actor has much more to work with.
Unfortunately, even from a healthy distance this film does not become engaging, let alone gripping, and certainly not moving. As a result, no trick of the eye can transform it into a powerful work of art, nor let the bird fly from his stand.