Directed by Akiva Goldsman. Starring Russell Crowe, Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Will Smith, William Hurt, Matt Bomer, Jennifer Connelly, Kevin Durand, Kevin Corrigan, Lucy Griffiths, Graham Greene, Eva Marie Saint, Caitlin Dulany. Written by Akiva Goldsman, from the novel by Mark Helprin.
Miracles and angels and demons, eternal love and a majestic flying horse… where to begin with Winter’s Tale? This should-be whimsical tale of love and the supernatural is instead so heavy-handed and self-serious that you can’t quite believe your eyes. But there it is, defiantly unfolding on the screen, a Frank Capra fantasy for the Dark Knight generation.
The film opens with some narration from Jessica Brown Findlay about magic and miracles and all sorts of nonsense, but pay attention – this is your only clue to understanding future events in the film. You see, magic is all around us, connected by the light, and every baby is born with one miracle to give. But agents of Satan seek to prevent those miracles from being realized…
In modern-day New York, a young man played by Colin Farrell roots around inside of Grand Central Station in search of… something. “I’ve had no memory for as long as I can remember,” he later intones. Gold. To refresh his memory, he kicks open a wall panel to reveal a box full of hundred-year-old relics from his childhood. If you’re wondering how Farrell’s character managed to survive these past hundred years without aging, an non-explanation awaits. On the other hand, I was wondering about the security in Grand Central and the likelihood of that box surviving for so many years intact.
1895. Ellis Island. An immigrant couple (Matt Bomer and Lucy Griffiths) and their infant child are denied access to the USA due to disease. So they do what any loving (and dying) parents would do: on their way back out of New York, they sent their baby son adrift on a makeshift raft, hoping that he might just survive to one day become Colin Farrell with an immaculate ‘do.
Flash-forward twenty years, and Peter Lake (Farrell) is on the run from the mob. Literally: we’ve cut right to a chase sequence, as a group of gangsters led by Pearly Soames (a scene-devouring Russell Crowe) has cornered Lake in an alleyway. But a magnificent white stallion just happens to be waiting for him, and Lake soars over the bad guys as he rides him to safety. Just in case that opening narration about miracles didn’t grab you, here’s a grand introduction.
Lake is a burglar, you see, and Soames is his former boss and mentor, who now wants him dead for reasons I thought might have been interesting if they hadn’t been relegated to backstory. Soames also just happens to be a demon whose face bursts out in scales whenever he gets really upset. Hey, I just saw that effect a few weeks ago in I, Frankenstein, which had both more charming effects work and a better sense of self-awareness. I never thought I’d be praising that film so soon.
Anyway, Soames doesn’t just want to kill Lake, he wants to prevent his “miracle” from being realized. For some reason. He needs some help on this one, so he makes a visit to Lucifer, who explains the basic, and completely arbitrary, ground rules to the audience. Lucifer is played by Will Smith in a couple short scenes, which is nowhere near as interesting as you think it might be.
What’s Lake’s “miracle”? Well, he meets the beautiful Beverly Penn (Brown Findlay) on one of his burglaries, and if you think this film is too good for a line about stealing her heart, well… Beverly just happens to be dying of consumption (that’s tuberculosis to you and me), and we know where things are supposed to be going from there, even though the film makes that leap from 1916 to 2014 in the second act and we’ve got plenty of flying horses and stars in constellations and all sorts of nonsense to come.
Farrell and Brown Findlay share some genuine on-screen chemistry, especially in that cornball introduction scene. William Hurt (as Penn’s father), Eva Marie Saint (as a 107-year-old magazine editor) and Jennifer Connolly (in the present-day scenes) offer solid support. But Crowe easily steals this thing as the raving mad Irish bulldog Soames.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) was responsible for Winter’s Tale, which he wrote and directed from the 1983 novel by Mark Helprin. This was purportedly a passion project for the director, and while the film frequently looks great (with some gorgeous wintry New York cinematography by Caleb Deschanel) the result is an unfortunate mess.
It’s hard to really hate this film – it’s so weird and different that it provokes interest on other levels – but there’s no denying that Winter’s Tale just doesn’t cut it. What might have worked on the page in 1983 – or in a 1940s Frank Capra film – feels entirely out of place with the heavy-handed tone Goldsman has brought to the material. Here’s hoping you can do better this Valentine’s Day.