Books are perhaps the richest source material for movies: The characters are there, the plot is there, the color and texture are there—all you’ve got to do is shift it all over to the screen.
If only it were that easy. The Goldfinch, director John Crowley’s prestige adaptation of Donna Tartt’s beautifully detailed novel, isn’t a great movie; it’s hardly even an OK one. Yet there’s something wistfully unfortunate about it. From its casting to its structure to its layering of visual textures, you can almost see how every good intention and carefully considered judgment call has somehow gone wrong. It’s an object lesson in what not to do in an adaptation, yet it’s occasionally effective enough that you can see a much more successful movie buried within it.
The Goldfinch tells the Dickensian story of Theo Decker who, when we meet him, is a 13-year-old Manhattan kid—played by Oakes Fegley—whose mother has just been killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an event that he happened to survive. She’d been raising him alone; his father had recently taken off, leaving no information about his whereabouts. (Later he’ll reappear, played by Luke Wilson, an angry loser in a hoodie under a suit jacket—always a bad sign.) There are no nearby relatives to care for Theo, so he’s parked with a Park Avenue family, the Barbours. One of the Barbour kids, Andy (Ryan Foust, in a terrific, funny and plaintive performance), is a friend of Theo’s from school; the matriarch is a society matron known to all as Mrs. Barbour, frosty and seemingly passive, though she’s really just a woman temporarily in hiding from herself. (She’s played by Nicole Kidman, in a turn that blossoms as the story progresses.)
Theo struggles through his grief, and he also harbors a secret: before his near-miraculous escape from the bombed-out museum gallery, he grabbed a painting, Carel Fabritius’s diminutive 1654 portrait of a bird chained to his perch. (The painting, itself called The Goldfinch, is real, and is part of the collection of the Mauritsuis in the Hague, Netherlands.) Theo intends to return the painting, possibly, though he never does. And it becomes a terrible secret possession that follows him into adulthood—young Theo is played, as a grown-up, by a far-too-stiff Ansel Elgort—and into his professional life as an antiques specialist and dealer, a trade he learned from a gentle gentleman named Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), who helped raise him.
The Goldfinch traces Theo’s love affairs and heartbreak, his yearning to find a place in the world even as he goes about it in all the wrong ways, the grief for his mother that he can never quite shake. It also traces the unexpected journey of the painting. But the movie is a jumble, and not just because Crowley reassembles and rearranges the straightforward narrative of the book—that can be an effective tactic, though it isn’t here. (Crowley is also the director of another, more successful adaptation, the 2015 Brooklyn, drawn from Colm Tóibin’s novel.) We have no sense of what Theo’s relationship with his mother was like; we get a glimpse of it at the end, but it’s not enough. The painting, a possession that ought to be burning a hole in Theo’s conscience every minute, is barely a presence in the movie. All of this makes Theo’s behavior somewhat opaque, making him impossible to care for as a character.
The most poetic and satisfying section of the movie is the one detailing young Theo’s friendship with an oddball Russian kid, Boris (Finn Wolfhard, of Stranger Things), both of whom have found themselves exiled in the godforsaken suburbs of the Nevada desert. This part of the movie, a song of the bittersweet, strange sadness of adolescence, vibrates with life. And the movie overall, shot in golden, burnished tones by cinematography god Roger Deakins, is gorgeous to look at. But mostly, it lies flat and handsome and baffling on the screen. It’s a chained-up bird, so rigidly tethered to its source material it has nowhere to go.