Winter’s Tale (2014)    1 Stars

“This is not a true story. This is true love.”

Winter's Tale (2014)
Winter’s Tale (2014)


Director: Akiva Goldsman

Cast: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe

Synopsis: A burglar on the run from his former mentor in an alternative 1916 New York, falls for a terminally ill young woman.




In Winter’s Tale’s version of New York, Lucifer (Will Smith – Men in Back 3, Focus) resides in a basement and wears a Jimi Hendrix tee-shirt, even though the year is 1916; demons like mob boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe – Broken City, Man of Steel) call him Lu, and must seek his permission to venture beyond the city limits.   Peter Lake (Colin Farrell – Total Recall, Saving Mr. Banks), a burglar with an instinctive talent for fixing machines who was once Soames’ protégé, finds himself on the run from his former mentor, and is aided in his flight by a mystical white horse that can leap great distances, and even fly.   The horse leads Lake to the home of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a young woman dying of consumption, and the attraction between them is immediate and overwhelming.   The story and influence of their love spans almost a century, even though the affair itself lasts only a matter of days.

For thirty years, it was considered impossible to make a movie out of Mark Helprin’s monumental fantasy.  It’s rumoured that Scorsese once toyed with – and then discarded – the idea.   In 2013, Akiva Goldsman, the writer of Batman & Robin and Lost in Space, took on the daunting task of compressing more than 600 pages into a running time of less than 2 hours.   Goldsman chose to dispense with major characters from the novel, and focus on the love affair between Peter Lake and Beverly.   It was no doubt intended to simplify the storyline, but ironically his attempt to truncate the plot has confused what elements of Helprin’s plot remains and robbed the story of much of its epic, whimsical appeal.   Traces of the grand, sweeping romance are still in evidence, but are diluted by Goldsman’s failure to explain plot points that make little sense to those unfamiliar with the novel.

Colin Farrell, sporting one of 2014’s more annoying hairstyles, struggles to make much of an impression in the part that’s supposed to be the heart of the movie, and for some reason, despite those puppy-dog eyes and improbable Irish brogue, lacks the requisite charisma to persuade us he’s capable of charming a woman whose house he’s in the midst of burgling into making him a cup of tea.   The comparatively less experienced Brown Findlay finds more success in the role of the tragic heroine without succumbing to simpering vulnerability: her Beverly Penn is a spirited heroine full of grace and life despite her sickness, which, it has to be said is yet another variation of that fatal Hollywood illness that has its victims glowing with deceiving good health.   Honours go to Russell Crowe, though, as the dapper,  devilish demon Pearly Soames.   In a brogue every bit as convincing as Farrell’s genuine one, he breaths calm words of malice which render the momentary glimpses of the demon beneath his human skin completely redundant; he exudes menace without motion or gesture, an essence of dark vitality thrumming beneath his scarred skin.

Other members of a quality cast include Jennifer Connolly as the mother of a terminally-ill young girl whom Lake encounters in the modern world, and Eva Marie-Saint (On the Waterfront, North By Northwest), also in the modern day, as the adult Willa, who was a child in the segment of the film which takes place in 1916.   And thereby lies another problem with Goldsman’s screenplay.   Helprin’s novel was written in the early 1980s, and so the modern segment of his novel took place in that period, which meant a person who was seven years old in 1916 would be in their early seventies in the (then) present day.   But the modern segment of Goldsman’s movie takes place in 2014, which means Willa, who is the sprightly editor of an upmarket magazine, has to be at least 105 years old.   Lazy screenwriting is a phrase that’s aired far too freely these days, but in this case its use is justified.   Did it really not occur to Goldsman, or did he simply think (or hope) that nobody would notice?   Either way, it’s the kind of sloppiness that really irritates.

At least the movie looks good, thanks to Caleb Deschanel’s dazzling cinematography, and Goldsman proves to be a far more accomplished director than he is a writer, which is ironic considering it his first attempt at helming a picture, but his fourteenth screenwriting credit.   But rather than proving wrong all those who claimed Mark Helprin’s novel was impossible to film, Goldsman’s movie seems to confirm they were correct.

(Reviewed 11th February 2016)

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