Starring: Colin Farrell (Peter Lake), Jessica Brown Findlay (Beverly Penn), Russell Crowe (Pearly Soames), Jennifer Connelly (Virginia Gamely), Eva Marie Saint (Adult Willa), Will Smith (Lucifer), William Hurt (Isaac Penn), Ripley Sobo (Abby), Mckayla Twiggs (Willa)
The passion project of scriptwriter turned director Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, the film is an adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Mark Helprin. The film was highly touted during its production and, indeed, the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is superb and the cast includes such notable names as Oscar winner Russell Crowe, Eva Marie Saint and Jennifer Connelly.
Winter’s Tale is a fantasy set in New York in 1916 and 2014. In 1916, a thief named Peter Lake breaks into the mansion of Isaac Penn but instead of stealing jewelry, he steals the heart of Penn’s consumptive daughter Beverly. Or perhaps she steals his—what’s clear is that it’s love at first sight.
Peter is being pursued around Manhattan by gangster Pearly Soames, who had been his surrogate father, and his angry mob, who want to kill him and, once they find out about her, Beverly. Luckily Peter has a magical white horse named Athansor, who sprouts wings and files the romantic couple to the Penn’s country estate. Soames, who is a demon, appeals to Lucifer to let him go to the countryside but “Lu” refuses, telling him to use his wits and magic to get his revenge on the “son” who had betrayed him.
Peter charms Isaac and Beverly’s sister Little Willa. The couple enjoys a fabulously romantic final night during which Beverly is poisoned by one of Soames’ henchmen. Peter (and the audience) is shocked that he can’t save Beverly; it’s been assumed that he is her “miracle” and the spiritual reason that the Devil and demons are against them.
In despair, Peter returns to New York, where Soames (accompanied by his mob) beats him unconscious on the Brooklyn Bridge and throws him into the chilly waters below. But Peter doesn’t die. He gets amnesia and wanders the streets of Manhattan for nearly a century, never getting older.
In 2014, the fog lifts from his mind after a young girl named Abby runs into him. Abby’s mother Virginia helps him to figure out who he is—and even introduces him to her boss, the grown-up Willa, older, but miraculously still alive and the publisher of a leading New York newspaper.
Of course, Soames is still alive and unchanged. He pursues Peter, Abby and Virginia and the winged horse back to the abandoned Penn country estate, after his revenge. Soames also realizes that Peter must have been kept alive to perform Beverly’s “miracle,” to save another girl, little Abby.
Will good triumph over evil at last? And will this film ever end?
What went wrong? Nearly everything.
Helprin’s elaborate fairy tale made some sense on the page, at least in part because his turn-of-the-20th century New York is beautifully evoked, filled with interesting side characters. Stripped of those elements by Goldsman, we’re left with the stock figures in such fantasies: the gorgeous, dying princess, her slightly disreputable lover, a loving impossibly rich father and a cute but preternaturally wise little sister. That’s the good guys and on the opposite side is a crazed demon, which even Russell Crowe can’t make interesting.
There’s no logic to the story. What had Peter done to anger Soames enough to hate him with such a passion? It’s never explained. Why do the Penns leave Beverly alone in the mansion? So she can meet Peter without anyone else around. How does Little Willa become old but not 110? Well, perhaps because the novel was published in 1983, when a six-year-old girl in 1916 might conceivably been working as a Katherine Graham-style publisher.
Worse: why is there so little chemistry between Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay (formerly one of the heiresses in Downton Abbey)? They both try hard and look great but there’s no frisson in their relationship.
And that’s the magic that the film really needed. If the audience could be swept away by the doomed romance, then who would care about the lack of logic—except for some grumpy critics?
Winter’s Tale is a genuine attempt at turning an epic adult fantasy into a beautiful romance. It’s a shame that things didn’t turn out better. This is not the film you should be seeing with your Valentine.