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The Goldfinch movie: An underwhelming adaptation of a masterful book

Review: Nicole Kidman, Ansel Elgort and Finn Wolfhard star in an unsatisfying film that makes you want to go back to Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer winner.

The Goldfinch
Ansel Elgort in the Goldfinch.
Warner Bros. Pictures and Amazon Studios

I recently forced the five members of my book club to read The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Only two, me included, ended up reading all 771 pages. I loved every single page of this book about a boy whose world gets shattered by a tragic event and starts leading an existence of subterfuge. Though I understand it's not for everyone.

The film version of The Goldfinch, out in US theaters on Friday, isn't for everyone either. But for totally different reasons. It has  masterful photography, a catchy original soundtrack and a lot of big names. But it also has issues.

John Crowley, the Irish filmmaker behind the perfectly crafted Brooklyn, directs. The Fault in Our Stars' Ansel Elgort plays the twentysomething version of Theo, an antiques dealer with a mild substance abuse problem and a haunting past. Nicole Kidman is Mrs. Barbour, the New York socialite and mother of four who takes care of Theo when he most needs it. Mike from Stranger Things, Finn Wolfhard, dons an all-black ensemble and brunette curls to play Boris, the Ukrainian citizen of the world who Theo meets while they're both teenagers. Westworld's Jeffrey Wright cooks grilled cheese sandwiches and restores old furniture. His amiable Hobbie also takes care of Theo. Luke Wilson is Theo's unreliable dad. And Sarah Paulson is "Xandra with an X." Although that's her only good line in the whole movie. And that's one of The Goldfinch's many problems.

Most of the movie's long list of A-listers don't have much to do. And the actors who do, like Theo's teenager version (played by Oakes Fegley), or Boris' twentysomething version (Aneurin Barnard) seem almost entirely chosen because of their physical resemblance to their counterparts, Elgort and Wolfhard respectively. And not because of their actual suitability to play these characters.

The Goldfinch

Finn Wolfhard and Oakes Fegley in The Goldfinch.

Warner Bros. Pictures and Amazon Studios

Like the book, the movie gets better when Boris shows up. But regardless of all the enjoyment Wolfhard brings with a gesture as simple as opening of a black umbrella in the Nevada sun or his complaining about how Americans always call their kids "stupid things" like Apple or Blanket, Barnard's Boris doesn't have the same effect. Not by a long shot.

No one can accuse the film of being unfaithful to the book. I can think of only one or two minor details that aren't directly taken from it. Even the dialogue is often a mere reproduction of what was on for the page. Yet I'd probably have enjoyed a less accurate adaptation. In a story full of metaphors about fakes and originals, copies and genuine works, the filmmakers could have dared to create their unique version of The Goldfinch.

"It's only a fake if you try to pass it as a reproduction," Wright's character utters at some point. The Goldfinch feels so much like a fake attempt at a successful adaptation precisely because the filmmakers try to pass it off as a reproduction.

The movie does take one big license: It alters the chronology, jumping backward and forward in a way intended to maximize the intrigue at the heart of the story. But this artifice had me wondering whether someone who hasn't read the book recently will be able to understand what's going on.

The Goldfinch

Boyd Gaines, Oakles Fegley and Nicole Kidman in The Goldfinch.

Macall Polay/Warner Bros. and Amazon Content Services

Some things work in the movie. Academy Award-winning photographer Roger Deakins masterfully captures the dusty, warm atmosphere of Hobbie's workshop and the museum-like clean-yet-lived-in rooms of the Barbours. The cinematography and Kidman's steely performance are the movie's best option at getting some awards recognition.

The movie also succeeds musically with an original soundtrack that features Cigarettes After Sex's Apocalypse, Radiohead's Everything In Its Right Place and New Order's Your Silent Face. 

II enjoyed the book so much I wanted to relive the pleasure it gave me in a shorter, easier-to-consume dose. Yet this two-and-a-half-hour movie didn't parallel the delight derived from many hours of reading. Maybe Sarah Paulson was onto something when she said in her dream world they'd have made this into a four-part miniseries

Let's just hope if they ever end up adapting Tartt's 1992 sort of a mystery novel The Secret History, the result will be more authentic.

Warner Bros. Pictures is distributing The Goldfinch worldwide. It was co-financed with Amazon Studios, which has streaming rights. The movie opens Sept. 13 in the US and on Sept. 27 in the UK and Australia.

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Originally published Sept. 12.