Winter's Tale (United States, 2014)February 14, 2014
We live in a cynical world. A romantic fairy tale like Winter's Tale might have worked better in a kinder, gentler age but, in today's era of sarcasm and scorn, its flaws (of which there are many) are magnified. For something this sentimental to work, one has to approach it with full willingness to ignore narrative inconsistencies and willingly suspend disbelief. The movie demands a lot that many viewers won't be willing to give. Can you accept Will Smith as Satan? Can you believe that when people die, they become stars? Can you buy into the concept of an eternal war between good and evil playing out on the streets of New York? Winter's Tale asks these things and more from viewers and, in the end, fails to deliver a story capable of satisfying even those who want to be drawn into Akiva Goldsman's mystically-influenced clone of our reality.
The movie transpires in two time periods with the first half unspooling in 1915 and the second half in 2014. Though a century separates beginning from end, Peter Lake looks much the same, thereby sparing lead actor Colin Farrell the necessity of applying old age makeup. In the World War I-era, Peter is a petty thief who breaks into the house of newspaper publisher Isaac Penn (William Hurt). The only one at home is Penn's beautiful daughter, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is dying of consumption. Peter and Beverly fall hopelessly in love and, against all odds, Peter earns Isaac's respect and admiration. Unfortunately, Peter is caught at the nexus of a supernatural struggle. Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), a demon masquerading as a gangster, wants to kill Peter before he can fulfill his destiny of initiating a miracle. Meanwhile, to balance things, God has sent Peter a flying white horse who can spirit him away from danger when the need arises. When the movie skips forward in time, some of the characters have changed but the supernatural struggle remains the same with Pearly once again attempting to thwart Peter.
On a purely narrative level, Winter's Tale missteps early and often. Its earnestness is its downfall, resulting in opportunities for unintentional humor. Goldsman asks viewers to believe in this mystical vision of the world without providing a credible reason why we should. "Hard to swallow" only begins to describe some of the plot contortions Winter's Tale offers. Yes, this is a tale of fantasy and the supernatural, but it abrogates its responsibility to make its reality genuine for the audience.
Goldsman, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter, is making his directorial debut. For his supporting cast, he has plundered past productions in which he has been involved, employing the services of Russell Crowe (from Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), and Will Smith (I am Legend and I, Robot). Colin Farrell, who has taken the Matthew McConaughey route of choosing offbeat roles, almost makes us accept his character through sheer force of personality. Jessica Brown Findlay, known to millions around the world as Lady Sybil Branson in Downton Abbey, plays a peculiar Hollywood staple: the terminal woman who grows more gorgeous as the hour of her demise approaches. Despite woefully written roles, Farrell and Findlay display enough chemistry to cause viewers to become invested in their romance - at least for the 40-or-so minutes when it's a plot element.
If nothing else, Winter's Tale looks fabulous. This is due in no small part to the efforts of master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel who understands how to use light and color to set a scene and establish a mood. Various frosty images stand out, including a memorable one in which lovers Peter and Beverly stroll through a winterscape. In tangible ways, Deschanel's contributions are more forceful and lasting than anything provided by the actors.
The movie's sincerity makes it an easy target for snarky comments but it's the waterfall of artifice that drowns the story. I respect Goldsman for having the courage to offer up an unvarnished melodrama but his screenplay fails to convincingly transport the viewer into the state of mind where the contrivances become organic to the story. Instead of magic, we get trickery. Viewers can spot the difference and it results in an easily mocked experience. What Goldsman attempts is laudable; the way he goes about it isn't.
Winter's Tale (United States, 2014)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Mark Helprin
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams, Hans Zimmer