Rarely is there a title more fitting than Winter’s Tale, because despite this movie’s February release date, it is already in the December of its pop culture life; a film that is so dead on arrival that it debuts in theaters buried under six feet of permafrost with a Hallmark bargain bin-ready smile frozen to its face like the most maudlin of greeting cards. Winter’s Tale is what happens when all the passion of a passion project is spent completely off-screen.
I genuinely like Akiva Goldsman. While there is still the odd Bat-fan who begrudges the screenwriter for his days in the scripting freezer, I will always find his screenplay for A Beautiful Mind endearing, and likewise know that his second collaboration with Ron Howard in Cinderella Man deserves more praise than it was given. Thus, Goldsman deciding to direct his first theatrical film earns more than enough good will all around, as demonstrated in his ability to stage a mini-Beautiful Mind reunion for Winter’s Tale with Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe turning in solid, if wasted, supporting work (they will get a better spotlight for a reunion next month in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah). The rest of the cast is also likewise strong with the perpetually underestimated Colin Farrell owning his early 20th century undercut, back-and-sides coif just as much as his palpable chemistry with co-star Jessica Brown Findlay. Yet for all the talent thrown at the screen, and behind it, this story of love and loss, angels and demons, and good versus evil, plays out for adults like many a child’s fairytale: try as you might, staying awake until the end will be the biggest miracle of all.
Set primarily in 1916 Manhattan, Winter’s Tale is the kind of magical, starlight dreamscape that paints New York as a wonderland of Edwardian fog and gaslight. But it is even more enchanted than most would dare fantasize about, as wonderfully named street rat Peter Lake (Farrell) discovers when he attempts to abandon his boss and erstwhile father figure’s criminal syndicate. An orphan who washed ashore Brooklyn at the turn of the century, there has always been a touch of destiny about Lake, which enrages papa Pearly Soames (Crowe), an underworld crime lord in every sense of the word when he reveals himself to quite literally be a demon in league with Lucifer.
Fortunately, Peter is spared disaster when he is saved by an angelic white horse that upon occasion sprouts celestial wings like a Christian-friendly Pegasus. The horse is literally a gift from God (or the universe) that wants to put Peter on his path toward spiritual ascendance through the kind of coveted miracle that can only occur when one finds their intended soul mate. For Peter, this is sweetly consumptive Beverley Penn (Findlay), the sort of pure-hearted, ill-fated tragic heroine who should mandatorily appear with a box of tissues on hand. 21-years-old and never been kissed, Beverly is perfectly accepting of her impending doom with never anything less than a smile or a wistful laugh, as she offers Peter Lake a cup of tea after he breaks into her house one morning with intentions on robbing her father. Obviously, they are hopelessly in love with each other before the kettle whistles.
Peter ends up risking all to prevent Beverly’s bloodless coughing spells while Pearly plans to disobey even Satan himself to keep the star-crossed lovers separated in a convoluted plan that spans a century—all the way to winter 2014 when a permanently youthful Peter will again come into contact with a woman in need (Connelly) during the waning light of moons and stars, just as the devil comes calling for his due.
Based on the high-pedigreed 1983 novel by Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale is as earnest in its ambition as it is in its ineptitude. Having never read the book, I imagine that the literature would explain why starlight randomly appears to be a weapon of both the Heavens and the nine layers of Hell, or even the simple mechanics of the angels and demons who only appear to haunt Lake once every century or so while he spends the decades sketching pictures of lost love in Central Park. However, on its own, the movie’s inability to shift between the supernatural and the superbly schmaltzy without tripping over its own lack of internal logic creates not the nighttime magic associated with icy nights and city lights, but a maddening jumble of directionless clichés.
The cast tries as they might to elevate the material, with Findlay trading in her Downton Abbey allure for another period piece downer that she sells with sparkling grace. Indeed, there is likely an E.M. Forster romance, or at least a Merchant-Ivory croon, to be found in the space between her and Farrell, but that is also unfortunately filled with a spirituality that blends in as seamlessly as oil does with water. Not that the fairy tale elements do not have their own charms. Crowe barks and menaces as the demonic cousin of his Les Miserables Javert, now unencumbered by vocal humiliation. He enjoys some of the movie’s best scenes alongside a truly brilliant case of stunt casting in the role of Lucifer. Sadly though, there is no miracle to be found in a movie that can never seem to marry its disparate elements together any better than when snow mixes with sewer run-off in any of the rest of the five boroughs.
Set mostly in a period where the first world war is waging on the continent of Beverly’s birth, Winter’s Tale mawkishly clings to its many digital snow flakes by suggesting that while we are all individually special, the most important battle in all of Heaven and Hell is whether this pair of beautiful anglos will be allowed to have a happily ever after. For this picture, it is all the stakes of Heaven and Hell. Unfortunately, for the audience it will be solely the latter.