Everything is beautiful in John Crowley’s adaptation of “The Goldfinch ,” even the grilled cheese sandwich that a kind stranger makes for a boy who has just lost his mother. It’s easy to get swept up by the refined stateliness surrounding this messy odyssey of grief and trauma. But like its well-pressed and repressed Anglo-Saxon protagonists, the film keeps the drama, the emotion and the catharsis at a tidy and safely compartmentalized distance, making the experience of sitting with this two and a half hour film a unique and perplexing one.
Adapted from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Goldfinch” isn’t a failure, but it’s not a success either. It’s an ambitious effort from a hoard of talented people, including Crowley, cinematographer Roger Deakins and actors like Nicole Kidman that gets a bit lost in its literary quirks while attempting to do everything and include everyone. It’s the kind of dense, decade-spanning material that perhaps would have been better served by a miniseries like HBO has done with “My Brilliant Friend.”
But they chose the middle ground: A very long movie that requires patience, at least a little knowledge of the book and some forgiveness for the things that just don’t work at all (namely the romantic subplots). “The Goldfinch” is about a man, Theo Decker (played, at 13, by Oakes Fegley and as an adult by Ansel Elgort), who is bound by a childhood trauma that he’s never been able to convince himself was not his fault. His mother died, along with many others, in a bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The only reason they were there was because he’d been accused of smoking in school and were killing time looking at her favorite paintings before a meeting with the principal.
Two things that happen in the minutes after the devastating explosion that will come to define his life. First, a dying man asks Theo to take his ring back to his business partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright). Then, Theo takes something else: Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting “The Goldfinch,” which he smuggles out through the chaos and keeps as a kind of anchor of guilt and shame.
Flashing back between the aftermath of the tragedy and present day, in which Theo is a grief-wracked, drug-addled and bespoke suit wearing New York antique dealer who’s about to get married and contemplating suicide, the film saves showing the explosion till the very end. It’s an interesting storytelling choice, considering it is a prominent part of the trailer. But it may also be the thing that gets in the way of the audience connecting to Theo’s journey from the beginning.
Fegley sells his part, however, and after a little adjustment to the rhythms of the film it’s hard not to be drawn in by this young man who no one seems to want to help or counsel in any real way. Even the Barbours, the extremely wealthy and formal family who takes him into their uptown home, offer little actual comforting. Kidman plays the icily compassionate matriarch.
Theo’s story gets more complicated when his deadbeat father (Luke Wilson) remerges and takes him take him away from all the culture and tweed and plops him down in a soulless, recession-stricken Las Vegas suburb. There his only friend is the vampiric Boris (Finn Wolfhard, with a vaguely Russian accent) who introduces him to vodka and pills. Naturally, the descent is set to Radiohead.
“The Goldfinch” is stoic and sad, occasionally brilliant and more often confusing. Adult Theo is far less engaging than his 13-year-old counterpart. Perhaps it’s a casting problem or due to the plotlines getting too abundant and too absurd. People from his past re-enter his life and tragedy follows him everywhere. And then there is an unforgivably underdeveloped love story between Theo and a woman named Pippa, another bombing survivor, not to mention his fiancee.
His search for release, or redemption, is rushed and overly complicated. It may have worked for Tartt’s novel, but as a film, the depths of this story are lost in translation — a flat reproduction that looks and sounds a lot like the masterpiece, but you know deep down that something is off.
“The Goldfinch,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “drug use and language.” Running time: 149 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.