Ansel Elgort is too dim-looking to play Theodore Decker. Theo is the hero of The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel, and he narrates all 800 pages. In order to play Theo, an actor must convey some sense of the character’s interiority, and Elgort fails to capture any of his intelligence or compulsive self-destruction. In fact, there are times when Elgort does not react to his fellow actors, and simply waits for his turn to speak. Shockingly, this problem does not derail director John Crowley’s film adaptation because the supporting characters are intact. Crowley has the sensitivity and care to convey the book’s emotions cinematically.
Save for a few flourishes, there is little narration in Peter Straughan’s screenplay. This makes Theo a reactive character with little agency. He rarely takes any initiative, and when he does, it is off camera. One way to foster the audience’s connection to Theo is to replay the defining event from his young life. As a boy, he and his mother visited an art museum that was attacked by a bomber. His mother did not survive the attack, and in the immediate confusion, Theo smuggles “The Goldfinch,” a singular painting by Dutch master Carel Fabritius, in his backpack. The film is about what happens to that painting, and Theo.
Oakes Fegley plays Theo as a boy, who is more shell-shocked than grief-stricken. The early sections follow Theo as he receives temporary care from the WASP Barbour family, then moves with his alcoholic father (Luke Wilson) to Las Vegas. Soon Theo meets Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), a man who becomes a father figure. Along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Crowley recalls the soft light and shadow of Dutch painting, and leaves enough space for little details, like when Hobie reassuringly ruffles Theo’s hair—a small gesture that means a lot to a child reeling from trauma.
The best section of the film is also the best section of the book. After Theo moves to Las Vegas, he meets young Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a sullen Ukrainian who becomes his friend. In a film full of sturdy acting veterans, Wolfhard gives the film’s best performance. Boris is a bit of a jerk, one who introduces Theo to drugs, but he also understands distraction is its own form of comfort.
The film’s flaws are significant: It’s somehow too long and too short at the same time. It rushes through Theo’s adulthood. The climax of the novel, which incorporates thriller elements, unfolds in minutes. Straughan’s script also glides through a romantic subplot with zero emotional impact. The film jumps between the past and present, robbing the audience of the curiosity that comes with familiar faces turning up in unexpected ways.
But at least The Goldfinch has the patience to let the audience focus on Theo (albeit as an empty vessel), and the events that befall him. Maybe you remember a kindness that carried you through a dark period in your life, or maybe you had a strange friend with wild dark hair that reminds you of Boris. A lengthy coming-of-age novel gives ample opportunity to create such connections, and Crowley is wise enough to understand that.
The Goldfinch opens Friday in theaters everywhere.