On a March day on New York city’s Upper East Side, producers huddle on the narrow first floor of an art gallery, studying their monitors and surrounded by pictures of flora and fauna. Eagles and herons adorn the walls, but the bird that serves as the focal point of this big production is much daintier: small enough to perch on a finger, yet still beautiful enough to start a sensation.
The bird, of course, is a goldfinch–or rather a painting of one from the 17th century by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. That indelible image was the inspiration for Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 2013 novel, The Goldfinch, which tracks the winding coming-of-age story of a teenage boy who steals the painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the aftermath of a bombing in which his mother is killed. Here at the gallery, director John Crowley–best known for helming the 2015 Oscar-nominated film Brooklyn–is shooting the final scene of the book’s much anticipated film adaptation. The real action is taking place upstairs, where Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman are filming, but this characteristically cramped Manhattan gallery is too small to fit everyone on one floor, so most of the crew watches from below, Kidman and Elgort visible in miniature on the monitors as they shoot one take after another.
It’s a particularly frigid day, so Kidman and Elgort are both bundled in parkas over their costumes when I meet them downstairs after the shoot wraps. Elgort holds a plastic cup, lid and straw with his hand pulled inside the sleeve of his parka, such that the cup appears where his hand should be, while Kidman is wearing a gray wig and prosthetics to look older, as she’s quick to point out. Could it be the formula for a second Oscar, after she donned a fake nose to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours and went on to win Best Actress?
“No,” she says, “it’s just what’s authentic for the role.” There’s a dramatic age difference for her character between her first and last scenes; at first she looks radiant and steely, but later she’s gone weathered from sorrow and the passage of time. “When you reach the age I’m at, you can go either way. It’s a fabulous place to be.”
It’s only a few days after the 90th Academy Awards, where the two co-stars ran into each other. “I think it was the first time he saw me without all this,” Kidman says, gesturing to her fake neck. “I saw Ansel’s eyes sort of going, ‘Who is this?'” Elgort has been working on modifying his appearance as well: “I’ve been dieting for this movie, because apparently I was too healthy-looking,” he explains. “They cast me anyway. They believed that I could become unhealthy, and I did!”
As restrained as their characters are in the film, the two actors are playful with each other and ready to laugh when the camera’s not rolling. When asked if he might get typecast as a thief now–this is his first big feature since starring in the car-heist flick Baby Driver–Elgort says, “Sure. It’s fun being a thief.”
“Thief of the heart,” Kidman says.
Onscreen, the tone is decidedly more somber. The film toggles back and forth between the story lines of the adult Theo Decker (Elgort), who remains haunted by his mother’s tragic death and his guilt and paranoia over having stolen the painting, even as a grownup who’s become an art forger; and the odyssey of the teenage Theo (Oakes Fegley), who begins bouncing from one adult guardian to another in the wake of his mother’s death. He’s taken in by Mrs. Barbour (Kidman), the mother of a school friend. In Tartt’s novel, she is described as “so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood.” Kidman makes the character glacial with flashes of warmth, an Upper East Side mom with more layers than are at first evident.
During his stay with the Barbours, Theo is exposed to a more high-society lifestyle, as well as a ravishing American art collection; Mrs. Barbour recognizes a kinship with the young art lover, and quickly takes a liking to him in her understated “bloodless” way. The role has been expanded from its smaller footprint in the book, perhaps to accommodate Kidman’s star power, and she holds up every scene she’s in like a caryatid in a Greek ruin.
But after Theo’s hapless father (Luke Wilson) resurfaces, along with a new girlfriend (a wonderfully smarmy Sarah Paulson, playing against type), taking the boy on a misbegotten detour to the Nevada desert, Theo begins fumbling toward independence, namely through his intimate friendship with an Eastern European classmate, Boris (Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard). Theo ultimately lands back in the care of antiques dealer James “Hobie” Hobart (Jeffrey Wright), whose partner was also killed in the Met explosion. Theo ends up becoming a skilled forger of valuable furniture–all while carrying a priceless stolen painting along with him on his adventures. Eventually he finds his way back to the Barbour family and its matriarch’s encouragement.
It’s a complicated story, but even in a movie with a love triangle, class tensions and a high-stakes grift, the main narrative driver is the fate of that painting. The book lets that unfold in a linear fashion, so those who have read it may experience less dramatic tension in the film version, which jumps around in time, withholding information about the bombing and the painting that readers would have known all along.
“That was the big leap from page to screen: the nonlinear, almost editorial conceit,” says director Crowley. “We focus in on two time periods of Theo’s life. It allowed us a visual approach which was very satisfying–a way of accessing his internal life.” By necessity, the film excises some of the novel’s epic scope and dense interiority–Tartt’s book weighs in at 784 pages–while still bringing the key settings to life.
The film, which arrives on Sept. 13, is a story of elegance and despair, preservation and decay. In a time when studios have embraced surefire commercial successes like franchises and reboots, The Goldfinch represents a rare grownup movie with a healthy budget from the studio system: Warner Bros. estimates the film’s cost at $40 million. “This would normally be an independent film, so to have a studio make it is [remarkable],” says Kidman.
The attention to detail shows: visually, The Goldfinch is a jewel box, richly designed and rendered, and a love letter to the city where much of the action takes place. “The story’s based around an old, romantic New York that is disappearing very quickly,” says production designer K.K. Barrett. “The Greenwich Village area and then the kind of upper-crust, uptown area, as a contrast to each other. Downtown’s getting gentrified; uptown’s changing.” Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots the film opulently, getting at both the rarefied atmosphere of New York society and the desolate suburban landscape of the Nevada neighborhood where Theo lives with his father.
The wide scope and largely metropolitan setting have led to the novel being described as “Dickensian,” a label Crowley embraces. “Obviously Donna [Tartt] adores Dickens, and this is her nod to him,” he says. “Structurally, you have a tale about an orphan who travels from the upper echelons right down to the underworld, which is a very Dickensian idea.” Everywhere Theo goes, death and misadventure follow. The light of hope comes from his love of art, and the power it can have to connect even across generations.
“I think that this story is celebrating the joy and importance of passing something on culturally,” Crowley says. “If you are moved or touched by a great work of art, in some sense you have a responsibility to it–to pass it on.”
This appears in the September 02, 2019 issue of TIME.