“The Goldfinch” may begin with a terrorist explosion but don’t be fooled. It’s not one of those films, not at all.
Rather, as directed by John Crowley from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller, it’s an intimate production whose quiet pleasures are not in a rush, befitting a source — a big novel about a very small, very old, very celebrated painting — that clocks in at close to 800 pages of small type.
With the kind of complex plot and range of personalities that book critics couldn’t resist calling Dickensian, “Goldfinch” was a challenge to shoehorn into a film, even one that’s two hours and 29 minutes long.
But while the result is not flawless, this a polished, impressive attempt that pays off in the end. It may take awhile to get there, but its themes of loss, longing, heartache and betrayal, not to mention the nature and value of beautiful objects, do ultimately move us.
Though it’s inevitable in a book-to-film project like this that characters will be eliminated, veteran screenwriter Peter Straughan (the Gary Oldman-starring “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” TV’s “Wolf Hall”) has gone one step further and done away with the book’s start-to-finish chronology as well.
Although Tartt’s novel begins with 13-year old Theo Decker and follows him in linear fashion for more than a dozen years, the movie cuts back and forth between the boy and the adult, emphasizing that the past is always present in his life.
Both Theos (Ansel Elgort from “The Fault In Our Stars,”and “Baby Driver”) and Oakes Fegley (the underappreciated “Pete’s Dragon”) are solid performers, but going back and forth underlines one of the ways “Goldfinch” falters. While the book has the advantage of the articulate adult Theo telling us about his youthful years, the film chooses to show the boy as a boy, and some of Theo’s age-related antics, especially drug-taking and shoplifting, are not scintillating.
Crowley, who did such an exceptional job bringing the novel “Brooklyn” to the screen, compensates for these factors by his polished direction of a fine cast, including Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson and, in a performance that quietly anchors the ensemble, Jeffrey Wright.
Also, even in “Goldfinch’s” abbreviated form, the picture’s intricate, Victorian triple-decker plot, rife as it is with coincidence, catastrophe and betrayal, provides so much twisting and turning that it smoothly holds our interest.
It all begins with a brief prologue, with the adult Theo distraught in an Amsterdam hotel room, overwhelmed with all kinds of regret as he mysteriously insists “what I’ve done can’t be undone.”
“Goldfinch” then flashes back to the story’s pivotal day, when young Theo and his mother visit New York’s celebrated Metropolitan Museum of Art.
What Theo’s mother especially wants him to see is her favorite painting (albeit one that in real life hangs in the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague). That would be Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” one of the few things to survive a gunpowder blast that killed the artist in 1654.
For his part, Theo is just as interested in a girl his age with gorgeous red hair whom we come to know as Pippa (Aimee Laurence as the girl, Ashleigh Cummings as the adult). But before he can speak to her, that bomb goes off.
Among the people killed is Theo’s beloved mother, and no one nearby, least of all Theo, who feels personally responsible for her death, escapes unscathed. “Before and after,” he says. “Everything is before and after.”
Dazed and confused, Theo exits the chaotic post-bomb museum with the painting as well as a signet ring that eventually leads him to James “Hobie” Hobart (Wright at his best), an antiques dealer and furniture restorer who has a shop and a home in a Greenwich Village townhouse.
Before that, however, with Theo’s mother dead and his father disappeared, Theo is placed with a quintessential Upper East Side WASP family whose son is a school friend and whose destiny becomes intertwined with his.
Just as Mrs. Barbour (Kidman), the matriarch of the family, is increasingly warming to Theo, the boy’s absent father Larry (Wilson) shows up with his sketchy companion Xandra (Paulson) and takes the boy to his home in the West.
Not just anywhere in the West, but the half-deserted, sandy vastness of the far suburbs of Las Vegas, beautifully shot by the film’s ace cinematographer Roger Deakins on the outskirts of Albuquerque.
It’s in Las Vegas that Theo meets the boy who becomes his closest friend, the mysterious Boris (Finn Wolfhard when young, Aneurin Barnard when older), an eccentric who uses a black umbrella to ward off the sun.
This middle period is when “Goldfinch” is at its sketchiest, not monotonous but not compelling either, but as the film increasingly focuses on its adult situations, the emotional connections strengthen and the dynamics that powered the novel kick in. A little bit of faith is all you need to see it through.
Rating: R, for drug use and language
Running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release