A few years ago, record crowds flocked to New York City’s Frick museum to see a modest oil painting, just over 13 by 9 inches, of a little brown bird with a delicate gold chain pinned to its ankle. Maybe they came because they appreciated the historical significance of Carel Fabritius’ 1654 masterwork; more likely though, they, like thousands of others, had read the novel it inspired: Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch.
The book was an unlikely literary sensation; nearly 800 dense, discursive pages about Theodore ‘Theo’ Decker, a boy whose world is upended by a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the titular painting he impulsively absconds with in the aftermath before the story takes him on to the desert fringes of Las Vegas, the gilded drawing rooms of the Upper East Side, and the criminal underworld of modern-day Amsterdam.
Many would consider it an unfilmable novel, too — at least at anything less than miniseries length — though director John Crowley (Brooklyn) has bravely tried to do exactly that, in just under two and a half hours. Calling the movie a noble failure doesn’t feel entirely fair; it’s sort of a fascinating one, too, and genuinely engaging for long stretches, with a handful of beautiful performances and gorgeously framed cinematography by Oscar winner Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Blade Runner 2049).
Theo is played by two actors: Oakes Fegley as a child, and Ansel Elgort as a young man. They both have a sort of wounded stillness about them — and a simmering anger, too, as Theo, suddenly motherless, is passed from the family of a friend shored up by Nicole Kidman’s self-contained matriarch to the dusty Nevada ranch house of his deadbeat father, Larry (Luke Wilson) and his gum-snapping girlfriend, “Xandra with a X” (Sarah Paulson).
There’s a kindly antiques dealer named Hobie (the always-excellent Jeffrey Wright) too, and his temporary ward Pippa, who also survived the blast but lost a loved one, and a friendship with Boris, a loose-cannon Ukranian kid (played first by Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard and later Dunkirk’s Aneurin Bernard). They all form a loose web around Theo, though only one of them really knows about the newspaper-wrapped secret he’s kept for years in a little yellow backpack and carries with him wherever he lands.
Crowley works hard to knit these pieces of the novel together into one cohesive whole, and he does it with a sort of sleekly melancholic style, swinging from the chilly gentility of Manhattan’s one percent to the sun-blasted wastelands of Vegas. Inevitably, though, subplots get rushed and condensed, squashed into any available plot crevice or discarded altogether; and characters who had hundreds of pages to make their mark are forced to simultaneously introduce and justify their existence, sometimes in only a handful of scenes.
It makes for awkward leaps and bounds, and certain omissions that ask a lot of the viewer to follow along. Yet somehow, The Goldfinch feels like more than the sum of its disparate parts; a painting in the wrong frame, maybe, but one whose imperfect beauty still draws you in. B–
(The Goldfinch debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, and comes to theaters Sept. 13)