I am sitting here as a nor’easter wails outside, thinking about WINTER’S TALE and how cold it left me. It’s also not going to do much for the ravishing young actress whose character “Lady Sybil” was killed off in DOWNTOWN ABBEY–Jessica Brown Findlay. Her career will remain in the deep freeze until a better movie comes along. WINTER’S TALE might have been a romantic bit of whimsy to warm a frosty Valentine’s Night– but instead feels like a big frigid helping of preposterosity.
WINTER’S TALE is based on the rather well-received, and by all accounts imaginative, and transporting 1983 novel by Mark Helprin. I have not read it. But the movie seems to have slipped from the grip of its accomplished co-producer/writer– but first time director– Akiva Goldsman, and collapsed in a pretty blizzard of incomprehensible images and occurrences. The mythic tale begins in a kind of parallel universe, like a Victorian-era, proto-industrial and very chilly New York, where demons and flying horses are the norm, and thugs in collusion with evil forces have extraordinary powers facilitated by colored stones!?
Enter Colin Ferrell as Peter Lake, a Moses-like character with a knack for mechanics and breaking into things, who as a child was denied entry to the promised land and was set adrift in New York harbor. He eventually falls in with a group of thieves led by the nasty Pearly Soames– Russell Crowe, who is infinitely scarier here than he was in LES MISERABLES (except when he was singing.) Peter is on the run from Pearly and it’s not clear why, but as he’s fleeing the city on his white horse spirit guide, he’s led to steal into the mansion of beautiful heiress Beverly Penn–the gorgeous Ms. Findlay replete with Pre-Raphaelite curls, who can’t keep from overheating. She’s dying of “consumption”– but it seems more like a thermostat problem and I kept waiting for Peter the mechanic to fix it.
I don’t want to give too much away about this strange plot, but expect romance, love, tragedy, time travel, someone who might be Lucifer (rather poorly impersonated by a very big Hollywood star), mysterious mansions, stars twinkling really brightly, and a few miracles. I am always willing to suspend disbelief– hell, it’s why I go to the movies– but the filmmakers and actors have to meet me half way and anchor the movie’s reality in solid storytelling and committed performances.
Here, the actors at least, are all in. Colin Farrell’s twitchiness has definitely taken a back seat to his impish charm; he’s transparently smitten with Beverly and it makes him irresistible. Jessica Brown Findlay is a bit opaque, blinding us with her beauty like the light she’s always talking about and seems to radiate. William Hurt brings his usual subtle menace and odd line readings to bear on his portrayal of Beverly’s sad, wealthy and powerful father. Jennifer Connelly is fierce and moving as Virginia Gamely, a woman Peter meets in the future who will unwittingly lead him to his destiny.
But despite the cast’s efforts, WINTER’S TALE feels half-hearted, empty, disjointed, as if whole scenes had been left out, explanations truncated, background info assumed. The film needed to be longer, its characters lingered over, its themes fleshed out; word was Scorsese had his eye on it, and one can only imagine the rich world he might have created.
As it is, screen legend Eva Marie Saint– one of Hitchcock’s “icy” blonds–makes a stunning appearance near the film’s end, only to be stranded in its dead, sappy finale and tundra of miscalculations; these include a math-challenged chronology which would make her character about 107 years old. She may have somehow been frozen in time–but I couldn’t suspend that much disbelief.