Mark Helprin’s thirty year old fantasy novel “Winter’s Tale” saunters onto
the screen as a lovely but slow and emotionally austere experience, a romantic
weeper that shortchanges the romance and the tears.<
They threw Oscar winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) and
a cast including three Oscar winners at this exercise in magical realism, and
yet Helprin’s bulky, honored book leaves them pinned to the mat, its big themes
seemingly diminished by the time the credits roll.
Colin Farrell stars as Peter, an orphan and a thief who grows up to be a
second story man, which is how he meets the beautiful but sickly Beverly
(Jessica Brown Findlay, of “Downton Abbey”). She’s dying of consumption, he’s
smitten. And since he’s ridden this magical horse who has thrown Beverly into
his path in 1916 New York, Peter figures he can save her.
The horse can fly, which is startling even to Peter, who knows the universe
is a magical place and that each person has magic in them, and that the horse
has already saved him from his demon mentor, Pearly (Russell Crowe).
Pearly — who loves oysters — is a bloody lieutenant of no less than
Lucifer, whose identity I won’t spoil. Ever so often, Pearly’s scarred,
unforgiving face splits into a Satanic scowl, all teeth and rage, and the blood
Peter may be just as doomed as his seemingly doomed new lady friend. Then
again, in the opening scene, we’ve seen this early 20th century man walking the
streets, confused and bearded, in 2014 Manhattan. Sometimes, “the universe
reaches down and helps us find our destiny,” and so it is with Peter. Perhaps
Jennifer Connelly, a modern day single-mom newspaper food editor, can help him
puzzle it out.
Goldsman was going to have to condense, trim and flip this novel back and
forth to make a film out of it, and he ended up inventing characters, expanding
some and shrinking others, to concoct a filmable version.
But he’s rendered “Winter’s” into a tale of fine scenes with decent
performances, but a story that probably won’t please fans of the book and will
leave those who don’t know the book scratching their heads.
Young Ms. Findlay is one of those Hollywood Healthy consumptives, in the pink
and playing a character whose constant fever means she goes barefoot in the snow
and sleeps in tents even on the coldest nights.
“I’m 21, and I’ve never been kissed on the mouth,” she complains, which the
thief she’s just met sets out to rectify.
William Hurt is Beverly’s newspaper editor father, and he and Farrell click
in a sparkling and funny “What are your intentions?” scene that hinges on the
confusing pronunciations of “claret,” “fillet” and “wallet.”
Crowe is plenty menacing as the Devil’s Disciple, but all the rules of this
universe conspire to keep him from tracking his quarry to the ends of the wintry
Goldsman, who also counts the adaptation of “I Am Legend” among his credits,
never lets the film lean on its effects, but the tone of the fantasy and the
romance of it all evades him. “Winter’s Tale” has no narrative drive and too
little heart to come off.
Rather than solving the mystery of whether it is “possible to love someone so
completely they cannot die,” it founders and bleeds out, a fairy tale too slow
to “die the one truth death.”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and some sensuality
Cast: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly,
Credits: Written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, based on the Mark Helprin
book. A Warner Bros. release.
Running time: 1:58