There’s not much wrong with John Crowley’s film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s best-selling novel The Goldfinch that isn’t also wrong with the book. Like the novel, the movie starts strong, in the aftermath of a tragedy that killed a young boy’s mother — the details of that disaster meted out only gradually, to keep you turning pages (or remaining in your seat). The canvas constantly expands, as the boy meets more and more wondrously odd characters in wondrously odd places, but with this Dickensian sprawl comes a near-Dickensian (I don’t want to get carried away) pacing, reinforced by the boy’s persistent dread that his irrational theft of Carel Fabritius’s precious painting, “The Goldfinch,” will be discovered. There are good father figures and caustically terrible ones, idealized and false loves, and temptations — drugs in particular — that lead the boy as he ages to lose his moral compass.
And there’s a Big Literary Theme: the immortality of that work of art versus the destruction and decay that bears down on us all. Neither the novel nor the film invokes 9/11, but neither has to: The work was plainly conceived in its groggy aftermath. The problem is that the grogginess seeps into the narrative. In the last third, the events seem random, and the story ends with a whimper, its protagonist literally unconscious while the central issue is resolved. If Tartt meant that to be the point — that the character had no agency, that events had gotten away from him, that the climax was meant to be anticlimactic, modern, honest, subversive — I missed it. I saw only opportunities blown. Watching the movie at its Toronto International Film Festival world premiere, I felt the same thing. And I sensed the audience go from rapt to absorbed to indifferent to let down.
I like those first two-thirds of the movie a lot, though. There’s something to be said for distilling a hefty novel into a two-and-a-half-hour film instead of a six- or eight- or, God help us, ten-part premium-cable TV series that’s rich in detail but takes the audience’s attention for granted. (Thanks, but I don’t need more scenes of Amy Adams’s muzzy memories. The first dozen were enough.) Crowley, meanwhile, is working with the best. The production designer, K.K. Barrett, is a specialist in turning settings into potent metaphors, while the cinematographer, Roger Deakins, has a genius for framing that rarely calls attention to itself. (One thing I love about film festivals like TIFF is that Deakins’s name in the credits got more applause than anyone else’s.) The designers and Crowley have crammed those frames with, well, frames, some (in the antiques store where the young protagonist finds a home) empty, some holding masterworks. The mirrors are frames, too, for a Platonic reality. When the boy, Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley young, Ansel Elgort older), is forced to move to Las Vegas with his screw-up father (Luke Wilson) and his father’s dim girlfriend (Sarah Paulson), the absence of art is like a blow. The only thing framed is a TV screen, while the desert sand around the isolated development (most of the units have been foreclosed on) looks about to swallow what’s left of civilization.
Crowley and the screenwriter, Peter Straughan, take a measured pace that heightens Theodore’s trancelike state in the wake of trauma. When the boy moves into the art-filled apartment of a rich school friend, Andy Barbour, he bonds silently with the mother (Nicole Kidman), whose marriage to an egotist has led her nearly to refine herself out of existence. (Kidman has a way with wan women rendered helpless by their own refinement.) The paintings tie them together somehow, each character looking in vain for something that will endure. The scenes between Oakes Fegley’s Theodore and Ryan Foust’s nerdy little Andy are small jewels, and Jeffrey Wright makes the antiques dealer and surrogate father who might have been a saintly drag a man whose artistry has colored his affect: He speaks with the same delicate precision with which he restores furniture. You want to cry when Theodore is yanked to Vegas and finds himself trapped with a crooked-souled loser of a dad who’d sacrifice his son for another day in pursuit of the mother lode. A delight that dispels the gloom: Sarah Paulson, who chomps down with gusto on the girlfriend’s vulgarity. Watch the airiness with which she reaches down to adjust her too-high heels: Paulson’s shallows are richer than most actors’ depths.
Las Vegas is where we meet the Ukrainian teen Boris, a budding gangster played first in weirdo-emo mode by Finn Wolfhard, and later by a relatively centered Aneurin Barnard. Boris is the Artful Dodger figure, except there’s no Fagin or anyone else onscreen to represent the world of compulsive racketeering in which he grows up. He’s intriguing early on, less so when he reappears as a devil ex machina to help the pal he once betrayed. As the older Theodore, Ansel Elgort isn’t as lively or interesting as the younger Oakes Fegley (that name sounds like something out of P.G. Wodehouse), but that’s the intent: Theodore has sunk into himself, his deliberateness a protective shield. (It must be said that Elgort with his glasses looks uncannily like a stretched-out Adam Moss, the beloved former New York editor.) Elgort’s stupor is eloquent, but by the time he’s wandering the streets of New York — the object of blackmail as well as the marital predations of Andy Barbour’s high-society sister — the pulse of the movie has slackened.
I’m guessing that’s because of the one conspicuous absence from much of The Goldfinch — i.e., the painting itself. The pilfered masterpiece is kept under wraps, out of sight. It’s only during the ode to Fabritius’s work in an epilogue that we see the entire image for the first time, and it’s both too late and too pretentious, not a patch on Bogart’s Shakespeare misquotation re: The Maltese Falcon: “the … uh … stuff that dreams are made of.” The result is that the film is robbed of its centripetal force, the source of Theodore’s pain, fear, guilt, and inability to grasp why he even has the damned thing in the first place. The flashback in which he steals the painting is Crowley’s biggest botch, a stylized encounter in the ruined museum, swathed in dust that’s like a heavenly fog. There’s no emotional weight.
I often test my readers’ patience with complaints about the ways in which movies deviate from their source — essential information if the film doesn’t work on its own terms, to the point where you have no idea what impelled someone to make it. In the case of The Goldfinch, the adaptation is way too reverent. The filmmakers don’t come up with anything fresh for the character of Pippa — the little red-haired girl who’s standing beside Theodore in the last moments before the catastrophe — to do. Theodore has loved her ever after, but despite a couple of sad monologues, she’s about as real as that other little red-haired girl — the one who made Charlie Brown’s life such a misery. As for the resolution, there is simply no help for it. You can’t build up to an action sequence and then get all moody and withholding. Well, you can, but then you’ll wind up with the kind of bad reviews and audience disgruntlement that I saw at the Toronto premiere. The Goldfinch is too artful to deserve that kind of rejection, but too arty to keep you from saying, “What did I just see?”