Winter’s Tale / C-
There's something dunderheaded-ly admirable about Akiva Goldsman's Winter's Tale, a movie so unashamedly sincere, so swooning with romantic gestures, that it makes you wish it were a better movie. It isn't. In fact, it's pretty much a disaster. But there's nobility in its intentions.
As his feature debut, Goldsmith (who scripted A Beautiful Mind, Batman And Robin, Angels And Demons) has chosen Mark Helprin's 1983 magical-realist novel about the miraculous love that blossoms in 1912 New York between Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a thief with a heart of gold, and Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay - Lady Sybil on Downton Abbey), a beautiful young woman dying from consumption.
Peter is an orphan who was raised by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), an Irish gangster/demon, who lures people into sin while relentlessly squashing miracles in order to keep “the other side” in check. His boss is a guy named...ahem... Lou (Will Smith), who sports a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and a nasty set of fangs if riled. When Peter rejects Pearly's violent ways he becomes a hunted man. Luckily, a magical horse comes to his rescue and puts him onto the path of angelic Beverly, the flaming-haired beauty whose time on Earth can be measured in months. Over a cup of tea the two fall madly in love, leading to a New Year's Eve romance that ends with virginal Beverly declaring, "If you don't make love to me now, no one ever will." "Then that's exactly what I'll do," Peter answers, like any good romance novel-style hero should. Which, of course, leads to tragedy, heartbreak and our dark-eyed hunk trapped by his enemy atop the Brooklyn Bridge. It doesn't go well for him.
Flash forward a hundred years (no, seriously) and Peter now wanders the streets of New York an amnesiac. With only flashes of memory to go on he meets food columnist Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly), who agrees to help him uncover his past – a destiny he could never imagine.
Martin Scorsese once tried to develop Halpern's lyrical, 400 page book into a film and concluded it couldn't be done. Goldsman would have done well to heed the celebrated filmmaker's conclusions before deciding to tackle Winter's Tale as his first film. It may very well be his last.
Composed with all the subtlety of a jack-hammer, this over-narrated fantasy seems incapable of grandeur or magic, reducing its ideas, visuals and performances to kitsch. Goldman not only neglects to lay out the rules of his fantastical universe, he botches simple logic. In the film's second half, Eva Marie Saint shows up as the grown-up version of Beverly's younger sister but anyone capable of simple math would realize that she'd be over a hundred years old. And that's not the least of the script's problems. Leaping through time, Goldsman doesn't even attempt to explain what Peter has been doing for a century, other than growing his hair out and leaving chalk drawing in various New York parks.
As the director, Goldsman is equally clumsy. His pacing could generously be called stately, the computer effects are 15 years behind the times, and his compositions are awkward and amateurish. Something as simple as a horse chase through the woods is executed so disastrously that you can see the editor cutting furiously to make it work.
Dramatically, things get worse. Goldsman underlines and highlights every idea and emotion, gracelessly pounding out any and all nuance. The whole affair would be profoundly embarrassing if he weren’t so completely earnest in his approach, and his leads weren't so good at what they do.
While Crowe chews the scenery with shameless (and painful) glee and William Hurt seems eager to collect his paycheck and move on, Farrell and Brown Findlay have enough chemistry to make their scenes crackle. Hollywood has yet to figure out how to use Farrell effectively, but his charisma and talents are undeniable. Brown Findlay, on the other hand, is radiant. The camera loves her and she takes a paper-thin character and makes her charmingly unguarded.
In a week dominated by '80s remakes, I suppose we should be grateful for a film with literary aspirations that offers up an epic romance just in time for Valentine's Day. Too bad it stinks.
Winter's Taleis currently playing in theaters all around metro Detroit. It's rated PG-13 and has a running time of 118 minutes.