Few Hollywood screenwriters come to mind that have had careers as strange as Akiva Goldsman. He is a winner of an Academy Award for his adaptation of A Beautiful Mind, and he is also responsible for the screenplay for the likes of the notoriously awful Batman and Robin, Lost in Space, and more recently Angels & Demons. Mr. Goldsman is also a fairly prolific producer, with credits like Constantine, Hancock, the TV show Fringe and the recent Lone Survivor under has belt. An odd filmography, indeed. Although an adaptation of Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale, this film, Goldsman’s directorial debut, has his fingerprints all over it. His proclivity towards rote melodrama, love of magical realism, and thin characters are amplified in a film that is silly at best and incomprehensible at worst.
Winter’s Tale exists outside of our reality, but it also exists outside of any form of logical storytelling. Myriad elements are introduced that are somehow supposed to form together into a cohesive whole by the end. They don’t. We begin in New York in 1916 and end in New York in modern times, and very little of what comes in between makes sense. As the story begins our “hero,” Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), is a thief on the run from Pearly (Russell Crowe) and his gang. On his way out of New York, at the behest of his newly acquired flying horse (yep), he meets the lovely and wealthy Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is afflicted with consumption. In a matter of seconds, the two mismatched crazy kids fall deeply in love, and we are off to the races. Love at first sight is a difficult concept to pull off (even if the word “destiny” is thrown around, as it is here) on screen and it requires committed actors who possess great chemistry. That, fortunately, is the film’s one true asset. As Colin Farrell matures as a performer he becomes increasingly comfortable in his skin and he exudes a gentle charisma in Winter’s Tale that is quite appealing. Jessica Brown Findlay, of Downton Abbey fame, is truly lovely. She is a radiant and compelling presence, and despite the film’s other shortcomings this could be a star making turn for her. Farrell and Findlay have a palpable chemistry and as the craziness occurs around them the romance between Peter and Beverly is the thin glue that holds it all together.
The film is overflowing with high concept, fantastical ideas like destiny, miracles, the nature of our soul and the stars, the aforementioned flying horse, and angels and demons. Very little of this holds credence or is well developed, and it plays like a thin hodgepodge of moments that are executed with what I can only describe as cheese. Laughter was stifled as these fantasy elements were taken so seriously by the film as to render them goofy. The melding of romance and fantasy is hardly a new conceit, and there are ideas and elements in Winter’s Tale that could have amounted into an interesting story. I was particularly intrigued by the film’s ideas regarding miracles and how that plays into the ill-fated romance of the beautiful dying girl and her lover the thief, but it fails to be convincing. I take no pleasure in being so insulting towards films, but not only did my eyes roll on many occasions but I caught myself with my mouth agape in shocked confusion. I could not believe what I was seeing. This film is nuts. I appreciate the attempt at earnest romanticism and magical realism, but there’s a grand, overblown tone afoot that does not have the intended effect. There are no rules or internal logic, and these many disparate elements are introduced as the film sees fit. Worst of all is Russell Crowe, who’s performance as the villain Pearly is as garishly and disgustingly over-the-top as any from recent memory. Pearly is a gangster stereotype, complete with stupid henchman, and his ties to the magical aspect of the film is too obvious. By the time Pearly is visiting a particular someone underground to ask for his permission to “break the rules” (what rules?), I was both shocked by how idiotic it was and dumbfounded by the surprise actor they got for this role. This film is nonsense.
The film’s final act takes us into modern times, and somehow many of these characters did not age a day. Again, the film barely takes the time to explain anything that is going on. We are expected to take what we see on faith, but it does not instill enough goodwill for that to occur. The film’s finale is an insulting twist of saccharine melodrama that pushed even my typically strong stomach for cheese too far. The film has a cheap, under-designed feel and an overblown score from Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams that adds nothing to the proceedings. Almost every decision seems to lack thought. The shot selection and composition is flat. The performances from the often poorly cast supporting characters are thin. The film wastes the legendary Eva Marie Saint, which should be considered a sin. The flying horse flies. (Fine, I liked the flying horse.) Akiva Goldsman has proven on many occasion to be a bad writer, but with this film he proves to be an even worse director, lacking in vision or instinct. Winter’s Tale is a mess and it is hogwash. I really don’t know what anyone involved was thinking.
Winter’s Tale releases in cinemas on February 14, 2013