You have to wonder about a business in which an enjoyable airport novel like “Big Little Lies” gets adapted into an entire prestige-TV series and a far richer work like Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” gets squished into a two-and-a-half-hour movie. Don’t get me wrong; I loved every minute of “Big Little Lies.” But the new film version of “The Goldfinch,” directed by John Crowley, feels like a disappointing misfire; it needed more room to breathe, to soar. Where’s HBO when you need it?
Tartt’s novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014, is a sweeping coming-of-age story. At its center is Theo Decker, who is 13 when his mother is killed in a museum bombing. Theo himself emerges from the attack unscathed, but forever changed: not only has he lost his beloved mother, but he has, in the confusion, taken a famous painting from the rubble, one that she loved. The book, and the movie, follow Theo and that painting (Dutch artist Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” tiny and perfect) through a modern-day Dickensian series of adventures, as he lives with a wealthy Park Avenue family, then his dissolute father in the Southwest, then a kindly antiques restorer in New York’s West Village — and, finally an adult, in Europe, as he chases the painting in hopes of making his damaged life whole again.
Peter Straughan’s screenplay is mostly faithful to the book, but trades its linear structure to a zigzagging timeline; we begin with grown-up Theo (Ansel Elgort, oddly styled like Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) collapsed in an Amsterdam hotel room, and flash back and forth to the character as a boy (Oakes Fegley). The film, shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (a 14-time Oscar nominee), looks immaculate — the painting seems caught in magic light — and the supporting cast of grown-ups is mostly impeccable. Nicole Kidman does another perfect turn as a whispery, loving mother figure; Luke Wilson is chilling as Theo’s snake-oil dad; and Jeffrey Wright, as Hobie the antiques dealer, makes something warm and nuanced from a small role. (One discordant note: Boyd Gaines, as Kidman’s character’s husband, giving a weirdly satiric performance that seems to belong in an entirely different movie.)
But the young cast is problematic. It’s tough to hang a large part of a film on the performance of an actor barely in his teens, and Fegley, though trying hard, never quite breaks through. (I was reminded of a comment by the great critic Pauline Kael, long ago; describing a performance as not quite acting but “more like thoughtful pretending.”) Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”), as Theo’s satyr-like friend Boris, offers an uneven Russian accent and a vaguely unfocused expression. Too much time is spent watching the two of them drifting — which is true for the book as well, but at least there they’re more charismatic.
Ultimately, “The Goldfinch” feels like a series of often-elegant moments, in service to a story that never quite comes into focus. Elgort doesn’t get enough screen time to really register as Theo, and the character’s love for art and beauty — which is part of why he clung to the painting in the first place — mostly seems to have been left on the page. Like the goldfinch itself, the movie feels tethered and trapped; it wants to fly, but it can’t.
★★ “The Goldfinch,” with Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright. Directed by John Crowley, from a screenplay by Peter Straughan, based on the novel by Donna Tartt. 149 minutes. Rated R for drug use and language. Opens Sept. 13 at multiple theaters.