In Winter’s Tale, Colin Farrell plays Peter Lake, a foreign-born burglar alive in 1916 New York, who was raised by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) – a crime boss armed with a harsh Irish accent, facial scars and a bad temper. One day, after the pair have a falling out, Peter is cornered by his ex-boss and henchmen, only to manage an escape with the assistance of a mysterious (and seemingly magical) white horse. Peter thereafter intends to flee the city and lay low in the countryside, but he’s unable to before his four-legged companion (?) incites him to burglarize one last fancy manor.
During the robbery, Peter crosses paths with one of the house’s residents – Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), an enchanting woman dying from consumption, with whom Peter is immediately taken. Their blooming love quickly attracts unwanted attention from evil forces, with an interest in preventing ordinary people from having any real meaning in their lives, as part of the eternal war against the forces of good in the universe.
Winter’s Tale is the feature directorial debut from Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man), who also penned the adapted script based on Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel. The celebrated source material – considered too complex (in a literary sense) for a film adaptation years ago by no less than Martin Scorsese – examines many heady spiritual themes and ideas through a story that contains elements of magical realism, supernatural romance and religious allegory. Thus, in order to whittle down Helprin’s dense text (and subtext) into a more manageable shape, Goldsman understandably had to make some significance changes and simplifications, in terms of narrative and themes.
Having said that, Goldsman’s Winter’s Tale movie adaptation possesses qualities of old-fashioned Hollywood romanticism, similar to those found in his previous dramatic collaborations with director Ron Howard (less so their Dan Brown adaptations) – meaning that if you find something like Cinderella Man to be too much of a stodgy and mawkish callback, then Winter’s Tale will try your patience just as much. However, if you’re willing to embrace (or, at the least, accept) Goldsman’s sentinmental approach, then you might find his new film to be a meaningful fantasy yarn about life and love – if also a somewhat confusing story (sometimes intentionally, other times not so) – that, if nothing else, will at least leave you with something to mull over afterwards.
One thing most everyone should be able to agree on is that Winter’s Tale is a very handsome film, courtesy of the fine cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ), but largely the lovely production design by Naomi Shohan (The Lovely Bones), which carefully blends CGI and practical scenery to create versions of New York – both past and present-day – that feel as though there could well be angelic creatures and demonic beings running around its streets (those who prefer their NY grimy and realistic need not apply). Clearly, Goldsman’s passion for the project spread to his collaborators a bit, considering how shimmery and picturesque the film looks on a $46 million budget.
As indicated before, there are very much times when the narrative is simply clunky and confounding, while other times that appears to be the whole point – that the magical happenings, like so much everyday life, shouldn’t always make perfect sense. Goldman’s script unfolds like a sketch of a fare more massive work (which it is), having to compress themes and sometimes expressing rich ideas through dialogue instead of visually – a mistake that a more experienced director might’ve avoided. Fortunately, Goldsman made a solid attempt to avoid going heavy on the exposition when possible, and the solid cast members help to elevate the material as best they can.
Colin Farrell does the bulk of heavy-lifting in Winter’s Tale; he may never be action star material, but Farrell once again proves that he is a good character actor, as he expresses a whole lot (emotions, thoughts) through his eyes and mannerisms alone, even when the script (and his questionable haircut) threatens to pull him down. Similarly, Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) plays the role of ethereal Beverly with sincerity and gentleness, which makes her lines and actions easier to swallow – though, some will roll their eyes at the romance between Peter and Beverly, and (in all fairness) not without reason, either.
Russell Crowe’s performance is certainly an… interesting one, full of snarls, squinting and uncomfortable facial ticks that, when you think about it, does befit a character who is literally supposed to be a monster, who must present himself as a regular, mortal human. He exudes a genuine menace more often than not, though Crowe’s scenes begin to descend into camp during his meet-ups with a superior who goes by the name ‘Luce’ (wink, wink) – the latter played by a name actor who I will not reveal here (don’t check out the film’s IMDb or Wikipedia page, if you don’t want the surprise ruined). Indeed, ‘Luce’ is an entertaining re-imagining of an iconic force of evil – though, not necessarily for the intended reason.
The supporting cast includes fine, if not especially noteworthy, work by respected and/or Oscar-winning thespians like William Hurt (A History of Violence) and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). (NOTE: Connelly is not nearly as much of a key player as the Winter’s Tale trailers might have you believe.) In addition, there are some recognizable faces that pop up from time to time – Matt Bomer (White Collar), Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves) - before they disappear just as quickly. Lastly, it’s nice to see Hollywood legend Eva Marie Saint make an appearance, which is setup well earlier in the film by young newcomer Mckayla Twigg.
Summing it all up, Winter’s Tale is one of those films that you’ll either get into within the first 10-20 minutes (fully or enough), or not at all. The trailer makes the narrative seem even more impenetrable than how it plays out, but it does provide a useful litmus test for determining whether you’ll give Goldsman points for ambition and admire what he does get right – while accepting the many elements that fall flat – or whether you’re better off finding some other form of romantic entertainment for your Valentine’s holiday viewing needs.
Winter’s Tale is now playing in theaters. It is 118 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for violence and some sensuality.