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Winter's Tale

aka A New York Winter’s Tale

D: Akiva Goldsman / 118m

Cast: Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Graham Greene, Mckayla Twiggs, Eva Marie Saint, Ripley Sobo, Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Will Smith

1895.  A couple entering the US at Ellis Island are turned back because the man is terminally ill.  From the ship that is taking them back to their homeland, they set their infant child adrift in a model schooner in the hope that he will be found and given a better life.

1916.  The child is now a young man and a thief, Peter Lake (Farrell).  On the run from local gang boss Pearly Soames (Crowe), Peter is saved by a white horse that appears out of nowhere.  Using the horse both as transport and as an accomplice in his stealing, Peter finds himself outside the house of the Penn family.  Isaac Penn (Hurt) is the editor-in-chief of the New York Sun newspaper; he lives there with his two daughters, Beverly (Findlay) and Willa (Twiggs).  Thinking everyone has left on a trip, Peter breaks in but finds that Beverly has stayed behind.  She is unperturbed by finding a burglar in her home, and invites him to have tea with her.  While they talk, Peter learns she is terminally ill with consumption.

While Peter prepares to leave the city Soames is increasingly determined to track him down.  There proves to be a supernatural reason for Soames’ pursuit of Peter, a reason that involves the balance between good and evil.  Peter has a miracle to give to someone with red hair, and when Soames becomes aware of this, and Peter’s recent association with Beverly, he attempts to take her away from him.  Peter intervenes and they head for the Penns’ country home upstate.  There, their relationship deepens into love, but at a New Year’s Eve ball, Beverly’s drink is poisoned by one of Soames’ men, and she later dies.  Peter allows himself to be found by Soames and is pushed off a bridge into the river.

2014.  Peter is walking through a park one day when he meets a young girl, Abby (Sobo) and her mother, Virginia (Connelly).  He has no memory of who he is and later, attempting to follow up on a clue he’s found, he meets Virginia again at the offices of the New York Sun (where she works).  She helps him and they discover his association with the Penns; he also meets the adult Willa (Saint).  Soames, who is also still alive, becomes aware of Peter’s return and tracks him to Virginia and Abby’s apartment.  Abby wears a red bandanna that looks like she has red hair; she is also ill with cancer.  Realising that Peter’s miracle is for Abby and not Beverly, he tries to escape Soames and his men, and save Abby.

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A pet project is not always the best idea for a first-time director, and it seems especially true if the director is also the screenwriter.  Sadly, with this adaptation of Mark Helprin’s novel, respected wordsmith Goldsman must be added to the list.  Helprin’s tale of magical realism is given a decidedly lacklustre retelling, and while some elements work better than others (as would be expected), those that do work are unable to compensate for those that don’t.  For example, the true nature of Soames – and later, that of the Judge (Smith) – is revealed in a shocking moment that is so unexpected it has the effect of destroying the mood the movie has spent quite some time establishing.  With that particular cat let out of the bag, the movie becomes quite different, and the tone darkens, but without lending the ensuing tragedy of Beverly’s death any real weight.  Coming as it does with around a third of the movie still to run, the audience is left wondering what on earth is going on, and their empathy for Peter and Beverly is wiped away as if it never happened.  And then Peter is killed…

Watching Winter’s Tale is like trying to watch two different movies at the same time.  There’s the syrupy, overly-sentimental movie that will attract fans of romantic dramas, and then there’s the dark supernatural movie that might attract fans of fantasy horror (if they’re aware the movie includes these aspects).  The combination of the two means they cancel each other out, so that neither is as effective or powerful as the other, and neither maintains its grip on the audience’s emotions.  The romance between Peter and Beverly is so cute as to be almost sickly, and their initial conversation – which includes deathless lines of dialogue such as, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever stolen?” “I’m beginning to think I haven’t stolen it yet.” – is so saccharine it’s almost stripping the enamel from the viewer’s teeth as the scene progresses (and there’s worse to come).

As for the fantasy elements, they serve only to confuse matters with their emphasis on souls as stars and the white horse as an agent for good, and Soames as a denizen of the underworld (or just this one – it’s hard to tell for sure).  As the movie reveals more and more of its miraculous background, Soames’ almost psychotic need to stop Peter from delivering his miracle becomes less and less credible by the minute, and Beverly’s innate understanding of the way in which the afterlife works is equally unexplained.  And there’s more dialogue to make a grown man cringe: “Look closely, for even time and distance are not what they appear to be.”

The dialogue, and its woeful attempts to be deep and meaningful throughout, is all the more perplexing given Goldsman’s acuity as a writer, but here he seems in thrall to the archness of the material.  It’s a testament to the acting prowess of Farrell et al. that a lot of it is made to sound more profound than it actually is.  Findlay is given the lion’s share of mystical pronouncements, and amazingly, makes incredibly light work of them, but is still unable to rescue them entirely from being torpid.  Of the acting, Farrell does floppy-fringed lovesick melancholia better than anyone for a long, long while, while Crowe chews the scenery as if it’s his last meal.  Findlay is simply mesmerising, and is sorely missed once Beverly is killed off, while Connelly is impeded from giving any kind of performance by having to accept Peter’s longevity in about two seconds flat.  Hurt essays his patrician role with dismissive ease, and Greene cameos as a friend of Peter who doubles as an agony aunt for him.

Goldsman directs with the finesse of a shovel to the back of the head, and fails to grasp that what may work on the page doesn’t always translate well to the screen.  With the movie being so uneven, and its characters serving as prosaic archetypes rather than fully-fledged people, Winter’s Tale stumbles and stutters its way to a conclusion that seems as rushed as it is unlikely (it also requires a character to make such a mind-bogglingly stupid decision it takes the breath away).  In fairness, though, it’s beautifully mounted with often luminous photography courtesy of Caleb Deschanel, and the movie’s production design is of such a high standard that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for it to be nominated come next year’s Oscars.

Rating: 4/10 – a poorly developed adaptation that takes magical realism and softens the edges of both, leaving a mawkish, haphazardly constructed movie to fend for itself; disappointing for fans of the novel, Winter’s Tale has none of the energy needed to make it compelling for newcomers.

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