Niagara Gazette — The 1983 fantasy novel “Winter’s Tale,” by Mark Helprin, has a large and loyal following. Akiva Goldsman is a screenwriter who’s had some successes: “A Beautiful Mind,” and some missteps: “The Da Vinci Code.”
The screenplay for “Winter’s Tale” is written by Goldsman. It’s his directorial debut. What he’s rendered is a plodding mess, a shallow film so bereft of style and believability that it makes you wonder why the book is so popular and why he keeps getting movie work.
The picture embraces “magical realism,” those fantasy components that may read well on the page, but if not done correctly, end up being silly and laughable on the screen. The novel runs 672-pages. The film ran an interminable 118-minutes. Vast swaths of the book have been cut, characters have been eliminated, and some plot elements compressed. Goldsman must have thought his screenplay captured the essence of the novel. He miscalculated.
The movie focuses on Peter Lake (Colin Farrell, using his thickest, difficult-to-decipher Irish brogue). In Manhattan in 1916, during the period known as the Gilded Age, Lake is a frisky thief who’s run afoul of a vicious crime boss named Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, doing his standard impression of an evil, angry windbag; this time with an impenetrable Irish accent). Years earlier, Lake’s parents were denied entry to America. While on the ship returning to their homeland, they put baby Peter into a tiny wooden boat hoping it would sail back to New York. Lake was found and grew up to be a cat burglar.
Soames has clearly made a pact with the devil. It must have been an interesting bargain because the characterization of Lucifer, named Judge, is played by Will Smith wearing a trendy T-shirt and sporting hoop earrings.
The deep-voiced Judge lives in the hollows of Grand Central Station. The train terminus holds one of the story’s secrets. We first only hear Judge pontificating, but when he flicks on a light, we see Smith’s face. The screening audience burst into laughter. It’s a dumb build-up. Soames asks Judge to help him find Peter, whose mistake seems to be wishing he were something other than a thief.
Meanwhile, a beautiful, red-haired young woman named Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) is dying from consumption, that classic disease found in archaic fiction. Peter has fled Soames’s gang on a white horse he calls Horse. It turns out to be a special horse. This is where the magical realism comes in. The darn thing sprouts wings and takes flight.
Although we don’t hear the horse talk, it does tell Peter to burgle one more upper-crust mansion. The sick girl lives there. A pianist, she’s fully aware that her last etude could actually be her last etude. Peter falls in love with her. Their passion is only spiritual. We are early in what feels like an endless movie, so you must know that Beverly will succumb. Her fading life-force enters Peter’s heart. He will live forever and always be young and good-looking.
Through all of this we have visited Beverly’s country home, which is a veritable castle by a frozen lake, seen Soames’s face turn into a devil mask, and watched Beverly’s father (William Hurt) try to fix a huge broken furnace that belches flames like the fires of Hell.
Onward to Manhattan, 2014. Peter is alive and wandering, and deeply morose. Soames plies his nasty trade. However, instead of giving pennies on the dollar for stolen goods, he now seems to be a financial predator. Discovering that Lake is still alive, Soames returns to the hunt for his soul.
Peter comes across a name that triggers memories from 1916. In attempting to find information, he hooks up with a newspaper reporter (Jennifer Connelly), with whom he had a brief encounter. Her little, red-haired, very sick daughter bumped into him in Central Park. “Winter’s Tale” is built on a foundation of such absurd coincidences.
The final third of the film involves the reporter, her dying child, Soames’s obsessive vendetta, and the frozen lake. It doesn’t help that the dull Connelly, the anchor for this section, delivers her lines with her patented wide-eyed, soporific vapidity. She even has trouble being amazed upon realizing that Peter’s actually a very old man.
“Winter’s Tale” is supposed to be about a spiritual romance. You should eagerly follow the characters. Unfortunately, Goldsman hasn’t given them engaging personalities. The horse has more pizzazz. Immense chunks of dialogue burden the pacing. When a wise woman, in the film for only a few minutes, steals the limelight, you know the overall effort is misguided.
Of course, it helps that the woman is played by the legendary, 89-year old Eva Marie Saint. She wakes up the audience and shows the youngsters in the movie what believable acting is all about.Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.