Few things intoxicate filmmakers like beautiful prose. The prettier a novel’s words, the more potential it must have as a big-screen adaptation. No wonder, then, that Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel from 2014, “The Goldfinch,” is now a lushly photographed, two-and-a-half-hour epic. With her elegant style and unrivaled gift for capturing the cosmos-sized ache of adolescence, Tartt is surely catnip to any director looking to make a grand and moving film.
Director John Crowley (“Brooklyn”) does his best with his version of “The Goldfinch,” which attempts to squeeze nearly every one of the novel’s 771 pages onto the screen. Faithful isn’t the word for this movie — more like reverential. What Crowley has overlooked is that Tartt’s book, though an intoxicating read, tells a maddeningly jumbled story that never quite coheres. The result is a movie that has all the weaknesses and few of the strengths of its source material.
“The Goldfinch” traces the troubled coming-of-age of Theo Decker — played by Oakes Fegley as a precocious tween and Ansel Elgort as a pretentious adult — who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From the rubble, he swipes a small Dutch oil painting of a goldfinch — one of her favorites — without fully realizing its value. He’ll cling to this stolen memento as he bounces from a temporary home with a wealthy family (led by Nicole Kidman as the chilly Mrs. Barbour) to a Las Vegas wasteland with his despicable father (a convincing Luke Wilson) and back to Manhattan to stay with Hobie, a gruff antiques dealer (Jeffrey Wright, warm and burnished as one of his Queen Anne dressers).
Young Theo’s story can be compelling, especially as he pines for a girl he barely knows, Pippa (Aimee Laurence and Ashleigh Cummings), and forms an intense, slightly erotic bond with an Eastern European ne’er-do-well named Boris (Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard). Less interesting is the older Theo, a hollow charmer with a self-destructive streak. Tartt made this mopey character come alive with pages of first-person inner turmoil, but neither screenwriter Peter Straughan nor Elgort manage the same feat. Theo’s foray into a dangerous criminal underworld — a sudden shift in tone — feels even less convincing here than in the book.
“The Goldfinch” overflows with mood and ambience, thanks partly to Roger Deakins’ painterly cinematography and Trevor Gureckis’ gorgeous, piano-based score. Though often entrancing, the movie isn’t saying quite as much as it thinks it is. Crowley’s love for Tartt’s novel may be like Theo’s love for Pippa — an overromanticized infatuation with an ideal.