Many bad movies have been made from good books—in fact, some argue that bad books actually make better movies that good ones do—but some extraordinary novels prove particularly tough nuts to crack for adapters precisely because they are so structurally intricate and thematically rich; their very literary density pushes up against the simplification the screen seems to demand, and the result is films that seem hopelessly shallow and confused reflections of their sources. One can only imagine, thank heaven, what hash might be made of a masterpiece of invention like “Pale Fire”—no one has had the impertinence to try—but recent misfires such as “Cloud Atlas” and “A Winter’s Tale” are cases in point.
Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Goldfinch,” unfortunately, proves another. In purely surface terms it’s the tale of Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley), whose life is shattered when his mother Audrey (Hailey Wist), who has been raising the boy alone after her dissolute husband Larry (Luke Wilson) left the family, is killed in a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The boy survives, but while leaving the site, filled with bodies and debris, he encounters a badly injured man named Blackwell (Robert Joy) who encourages him to take a painting lying amid the ruins—Carel Fabricius’ 1654 portrait of a bird chained to a golden bar—and gives him a ring before dying. The ring will take him to the antiques shop the man ran along with his soft-spoken partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), who will become the boy’s mentor in the trade in ancient objects. At the shop Theo will also visit Pippa (Aimee Laurence), who was with Blackwell in the museum, admiring “The Goldfinch,” and suffered injuries that threaten her dream of becoming a concert pianist.
Theo is taken in temporarily by a wealthy family, the Barbours—dotty Chance (Boyd Gaines), his elegantly cool wife Samantha (Nicole Kidman) and their children Platt (Jack DiFalco), Kitsey (Carly Connors), Toddy (Collin Shea Schirrmacher) and Andy (Ryan Foust). Samantha grows very fond of him, and he develops a genial friendship with precocious Andy, but this semi-idyllic interlude, interrupted only by nightmares about the explosion exacerbated by his feelings of guilt, is shattered by the arrival of Larry and his girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), who whisk him off to their remote house in a near-deserted desert development outside Las Vegas, where Larry spends his days drinking beer and betting on football games—none too successfully, if the appearance of Mr. Silver (Peter Jacobson) is any indication.
What keeps Theo going during this stay in desolation—apart from the painting, which he keeps wrapped in newspaper—is the wild friendship he develops with a classmate, a Ukrainian named Boris (Finn Wolfhard), who lives with his brutal father in the development. They spend their days and nights carousing, commiserating, drinking and doing drugs—until an altercation with Larry and the latter’s sudden death lead him to run away back to New York, where he’s taken in by kindly Hobie, who grooms him as his young assistant and partner he shortly becomes Ansel Elgort).
The cherished painting, still wrapped up in storage, becomes the older Theo’s go-to solace when he faces emotional distress, in one instance when he’s caught by slimy art dealer Reeve (Denis O’Hare) selling a forgery as a genuine antique; Reeve also accuses him of having stolen Fabricius’ painting and using it to bankroll drug deals (the explanation for that allegation will eventually be revealed).
But even that professional problem pales beside his personal one. A chance meeting with Platt (now Luke Kleintank) leads Theo back to the Barbour family, and he becomes engaged to Kitsey (now Willa Fitzgerald); but her infidelity with his old school nemesis Tom Cable (Gordon Winarick, played in the character’s earlier form by Nicky Torchia) makes him uncertain about going through with the wedding, particularly since he’s still obviously in love with Pippa (now Ashleigh Cummings), who drops into Hobie’s shop occasionally with her British boyfriend and has long conversations with Theo about her own sadness.
Another chance encounter as he’s trying to buy drugs reunites Theo with Boris (now Aneurin Barnard), who reveals a secret that will take them both to Amsterdam for a confrontation with a shadowy collection of thugs who deal in stolen art. It’s here that the fate of Fabricius’ painting is finally decided and Theo achieves some semblance of liberation from his tortured past, though doing so nearly costs him his life.
As this rudimentary précis demonstrates, the narrative combines intimacy—it’s essentially a very fraught coming-of-age tale—and epic themes about the power of art, suffused with suggestions about irresistible fate. But despite the care showered on it by scripter Peter Straughan, director John Crowley, the excellent cast (in which young Fegley, Wolfhard and Foust particularly stand out), and an exceptional crafts team—K.K. Barrett’s production design, Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costumes, Deborah Jensen’s art direction, Renata DeAngelo’s set decoration, Trevor Guerckis’ score, and especially Roger Deakins’ absolutely gorgeous cinematography, as well as the effects, are all top-drawer—“The Goldfinch” never manages to make emotional or intellectual contact.
Partially that derives from the solemn, stately pacing favored by Crowley and editor Kelley Dixon. One can understand the reason behind it: the complexity of the story and the proliferation of characters, complicated further by the shifts in chronology, mean that the makers must carefully dole out information and try to keep matters clear.
But they do not succeed in maintaining clarity. At times it’s difficult simply to recognize characters who reappear after a long absence: Schirrmacher’s young Toddy Barbour, for example, shows up later in the person of Austin Weyant, but the two actors differ so much in appearance, and the character appears so fleetingly anyway, that nothing about him really registers. And even when it’s obvious who the reintroduced personages are—Boris, for instance—the different actors don’t match up particularly well.
There’s also the matter of sheer coincidence, which one can accept fairly easily when it occurs on the page but strikes you as implausible on the screen. The older Theo’s simply bumping into Platt and Boris in a city of millions might work perfectly well in the context of many hundreds of pages, but when the two events seem to happen within minutes of one another, it comes across as the result of crude plot convenience.
Perhaps inevitable, too, is a necessity to compress and abruptly rush things ahead. The scenes in Amsterdam at the close, for example, reduce what’s happened to a sudden avalanche of expository dialogue, hastily delivered. After the leisurely tempo of the earlier two hours of the film, it makes one feel that the makers simply concluded that they had to wrap things up before they approached the three-hour mark.
One also senses missing or underplayed elements. Yes, the Fabricius painting is so precious to Theo because it represents a last link to the mother he lost. And the symbolism of Theo’s being chained to his self-accusatory grief just as the goldfinch is tied to its perch is fairly obvious. But it might have been emphasized to a greater degree that Fabricius himself died in an explosion—the so-called Delft Thunderclap, the great gunpowder explosion of 1654, which also destroyed many of his paintings, leaving only a dozen or so behind (just as Theo’s mother left behind her son).
One could go on at great length about how “The Goldfinch” fails to capture fully the richness of Tartt’s book. But setting all that aside, the issue is whether it succeeds on its own as an independent work of art, and despite the dedication and craftsmanship which Crowley and his collaborators have brought to the project, the result is a slow, opaque, diffuse if visually arresting film that never manages to move one as it is intended to do. It might, however, prompt some viewers to take up the book, which they will probably find much more satisfying.