Winter's Tale (2014) / Fantasy-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and some sensuality
Running Time: 118 min.

Cast: Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Eva Marie Saint, Mckayla Twiggs, Ripley Sobo, Kevin CorriganWill Smith, Graham Greene, Kevin Durand
Director: Akiva Goldsman
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman (based on the novel by Mark Helprin)

Review published February 18, 2014

Whenever you see the name "Akiva Goldsman" attached to a film's title, you will usually also read the words, "Academy Award Winner" attached to it as well.  While it's true that Goldsman would go on to get an Oscar for Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, one should also note that some of his other screenwriting credits include Batman Forever, Batman and Robin and Lost in Space. With Goldsman not only writing Winter's Tale, an adaptation of Mark Helprin's 1983 fantasy novel, as well as directing (his first effort), and producing, the biggest question is, "Which is the real Akiva Goldsman?  The award winner, or the high-gloss clunker?"

Unfortunately, from the result of Winter's Tale, the answer is unequivocally the latter.  Calling this Winter Stale would be more apropos of the finished product.  Martin Scorsese had once been attached to this project, ultimately leaving it, claiming it was, "unfilmable."  If one of the greatest directors in cinematic history can't get a handle on it, what chance do you feel a first-timer has?

The story starts in 1895 just off of the coast of New York City, where a couple of married immigrants aren't barred from entering the country due to an illness, forcing them to make a tiny sailboat for their baby to send him ashore to fend for himself (horrendous parenting alert).  Fast forward 20 years and the orphan's all grown up in the form of Peter Lake (Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks), a crafty thief who finds himself in a bit of hot water when his former boss, a brutish gangster named Pearly Soames (Crowe, Man of Steel), is trying to put an end to his life.  Peter is saved from certain death by the sudden appearance of a white horse, which, as it turn out, can fly.

Knowing he can't escape Pearly for long, Peter's aching to get out of the thieving game, and out of town, but the horse directs him to perform one final heist at the home of the successful Isaac Penn (Hurt, The Host).  While inside, he meets the lover of his destiny, a young woman named Beverly (Findlay, "Downton Abbey"), who is dying of consumption, and to whom Peter vows to steal away from certain death.  Meanwhile, Soames, whom we learn is a demon in disguise, is out to stop them before they can commit a miracle that  may tip the eternal scales and give the upper hand to the forces of good over evil.

The cast is the best thing about the film, as Goldsman pulls together a "who's who" list of talent who have worked with him before in previous films.  A Beautiful Mind's Crowe and (a hardly necessary) Jennifer Connelly, Lost in Space's William Hurt, and even I Robot and I Am Legend's Will Smith, who makes a small appearance in a couple of scenes, are all in the mix.  Crowe is the only one of these with a real part, but he is completely unappealing in the malevolent role, which comes across like Les Miz's Javert were melded with Virtuosity's SID, then all his personality were sucked out.

Colin Farrell gets the top bill, however, and while he delivers a quality performance, his character is so sketchily drawn up and idealized, that most of his many emotional scenes lay dormant throughout.  Findlay, while cast primarily for her beauty, looks a little too healthy, dolled up and finely primped most of the time, to buy as a shut-in who spends nearly all of her waking hours away from the public eye, suffering in silence and loneliness from a terminal disease.  They could have made for a decent romantic match had their characters been written as real people, rather than just cogs in an elaborately conceived theme of eternal love and universal forces -- they fall in love because they're fated to do so, not because they earn the mutual attraction from one another that's worth risking their very lives to sustain.

For a film that deals with ageless principles, it seems that age is also something ignored for the film.  For instance, if Peter Lake were a baby in 1895, he'd have to be about 20 when he meets Beverly in 1915 -- his portrayer, Colin Farrell, is 37 years old.  There are even few scenes set in 2014, one which includes a character we know from 99 years before, which would make her pushing close to 110 years of age.  She is played by a very spry Eva Marie Saint (Superman Returns, Because of Winn-Dixie), who, while not exactly a spring chicken at 89 years of age, looks and moves around like she is much younger, not to mention she is still not retired from her high-profile job as a newspaper editor. Meanwhile, there is no explanation at all for what an apparently immortal Peter Lake is doing for nearly a century other than defacing public walkways with the same redhead-girl chalk drawing, lest we forget its significance when the time comes for a big reveal later.

Goldsman, collaborating with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Jack Reacher, The Spiderwick Chronicles), places a good deal of emphasis on the visuals of the film, with the snowy environs, plays of light and shadow, the winged magnificence of the magical horse, and the allure of the shimmering stars in the sky (lens flares abound).  As appealing as those may occasionally be, there is an undercurrent of very ugly images that also mars the production values, starting with the cheesy look given to Soames and his gang, who all wear obviously stylized costumes, donning all-black bowlers and attire.  Then there is the ugly use of CGI, particularly in a few moments in which the agents of evil show their true colors and reveal frightful, snarling faces.  It should be noted that original effects company, Rhythm and Hues, fell to bankruptcy during production, and a new company had to pick up the pieces in a hurry, resulting in a very uneven visual dynamic.  Further keeping with the ugliness of the film, the finale of the film gets needlessly violent, to the point where whatever chance there is for an uplifting, romantic movie to emerge, it just is way too dark and bloody in tone for good feelings to emerge.

Winter's Tale is certainly clunky and comes off as rather charmless considering the attempt at a transcendental ride that imbues its viewers with the magic and whimsy Goldsman is obviously striving for.  The film whisks us from plot point to plot point without any adequate explanation other than there are forces in the universe at play we just will never understand.  Seems like a fishy excuse for lazy screenwriting, especially since there isn't an instance of dialogue in the entire film that comes across as a normal conversation between real people.  What are we to hold on to in order to carry us through all of the mumbo-jumbo?

One can feel Goldsman reaching, straining, and ultimately failing miserably, for the lofty, the spiritual, the fantastic, the utterly romantic.  Instead, his lack of experience as a director shows, as the story comes off as strange, heavy-handed, incoherent, artless.  Fans of the lengthy and more richly detailed Helprin work will only be utterly disappointed, not only in the underwhelming results, but also that few viewers unfamiliar with the book will bother to seek it out after seeing this horrible adaptation by an acclaimed screenwriter.  Are there take-backs for Academy Awards?

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo