Winter’s Tale seems like a labor of love. It was produced, written, and directed by Akiva Goldsman, a Hollywood fixture, from a 1983 novel by Mark Helprin. His directing credits are scant, but Goldsman penned A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, and I Am Legend, among others. Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Will Smith all show up, which suggests a reunion of friends.
Unfortunately, this is a waste of labor. Winter’s Tale is terrible in that way that makes you wonder how no one spoke up during the production to point out they were perpetrating a train wreck.
Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is an Irish immigrant in early-20th-Century New York, and a former mechanic turned low-level thief. He’s gotten on the bad side of one Pearly Soames (Crowe), the local boss of the Irish mob. While trying to not get knifed by Pearly’s goons, Peter stumbles across a horse that can fly (like you do). Said horse eventually leads Peter to Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), the daughter of a posh and eccentric British ex-pat (William Hurt). There’s also Beverly’s little sister (Mckayla Twiggs) whose out-of-place spunkiness feels like it was dropped in from a Judd Apatow comedy.
Beverly sees visions of light and also happens to be dying of consumption, so she spends her time out in the cold to keep her temperature down. Peter and Beverly of course fall in love, then things go south, and events conspire to keep Peter alive and un-aged into the present era. At that point, he bumps into a reporter (Connelly) and her daughter, and must figure out how to put all the pieces together.
Also, did I mention Pearly is a demon? I suppose you’d expect that, what with the flying horses and perpetual youth over the century. He takes orders from Lou (Will Smith) about whom I will simply say that this isn’t the first time this particular archetypal character has been nicknamed “Lou.” And Peter Stormare did a better job playing him.
There’s no inherent reason the earnest, taken-for-granted fairy tail aspect of Winter’s Tale couldn’t work. Stardust pulled off something similar with grace and aplomb. The setting, amongst Irish and British immigrant communities of New York at the turn of the century, certainly helps aesthetically. Finlay is ontologically incapable of being anything other than gorgeous and endearing, even when spouting new-age nonsense. And the meet cute between her and Farrell — when he attempts to rob her house and winds up sitting down for tea — warms your gut in a good way. As for Crowe, the man is clearly having fun, snarling and barking his way through Pearly’s demonic sadism and Irish drawl.
But Goldsman’s not up to the challenge he sets for himself. The film’s pacing is clunky, and his camera placement is often odd. Watch the scene where Peter rescues Beverly from a surprised Pearly by literally riding down the middle of the street, then ask yourself if the timing and phsyical lines make any sense at all. There’s a the scene where Will Smith goes into full-on rant mode, and the background imagery is clearly meant to convey the dark power at work, but the placement of things flattens the frame rather than heightening the tension. Then there’s the flying horse sequences — an opportunity for wonder if ever there was one — which Goldsman delivers as a perfunctory afterthought.
The deepest problems in Winter’s Tale are not in the execution, however, but in the very conception. As the movie goes on, it increasingly seems like everyone except for Peter, Beverly, and Connelly’s reporter is in on the film’s supernatural undercurrents. Peter is rendered the lucky plaything of a cheap deus ex machina, prodded along by forces beyond his control and comprehension to the inevitable conclusion.The flying horse, whom Peter amusingly refers to as “horse” (natch), saves the day multiple times over; there’s Cecil (Maurice), the stable boy who’s only there to make sure Peter makes certain cosmically scheduled appointments (and who’s black, natch); and Humpstone (Graham Greene) who clues Peter into the existence of miracles and spirit animals (and who’s Native American, natch again). The casting and character presentations fall into the “magical mystical negro” trap, except with multiple ethnicities. That failure betrays a privileged breeziness that infects the whole film.
Stardust managed to avoid these pitfalls by not taking itself too seriously. No one important died, and all the major players lived happily ever after — it’s a fairy tale to its core. But Winter’s Tale insists on being about the big questions: life, death, love, loss, you get the drill. And hey, all the blood and suffering and despair in the world is okay, because there are no accidents and it’s all part of some “pattern,” don’t you see? Someday you may even save a denizen of upper class bohemian Manhattan from cancer, and live forever with your beloved as a star. (How do stars communicate, by the way? Flickering through morse code, perhaps?) As a reckoning with the human condition or a vision of salvation, the whole thing borders on the existentially insulting.