Winter's Tale

Winter’s Tale doesn’t lack for sincerity. It’s genuinely invested in the idea of eternal love, and the notion that everything happens for a reason, and the possibility that miracles are happening around us every day, and it tries its very hardest to sell us on these pleasant beliefs. What Winter’s Tale lacks is sense.

Akiva Goldsman‘s directorial debut is thought-provoking in that it raises lots and lots of questions, but they aren’t of the deep, meaningful, existential variety. Rather, they range from the amusingly trivial (why is Satan wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt in 1915 Manhattan?) to the thoroughly confounding. (Seriously, what is the point of this supposedly epic battle between good and evil?) By the time it was all over, the magical flying horse-slash-guardian angel felt like the most comprehensible thing I’d seen in the past two hours.

The film is based on Mark Helprin‘s 1983 novel, and the first half takes place in 1916 New York. Colin Farrell plays protagonist Peter Lake, a handsome thief who retains a strong Irish accent despite having emigrated to the U.S. via toy boat as a baby. After escaping a confrontation with pissed-off demon boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) by hitching a ride on a winged horse, he sneaks into a lavish Central Park-facing mansion with the intention of robbing the place.

Once there, however, he begins to think that the best thing he’s ever stolen is something he hasn’t stolen yet, i.e., the heart of beautiful young consumptive Beverly Penn, played by Downton Abbey‘s Jessica Brown-Findlay. She happens to be home when he breaks into her house, and the two instantly fall in the kind of earth-shattering love that leads Peter to wonder aloud, to her father, whether it’s “possible to love someone so completely that they simply cannot die.” (Mr. Penn’s hilariously indifferent response: “No.”)

Evidently, though, it is possible to love someone so much that they can be whisked a century into the future without having aged a day. In the second half of the movie, Peter finds himself all alone in 2014 Manhattan with no recollection of his identity or his past, but enough leftover luck to meet a food writer (Jennifer Connelly) who can help him recover both with some help from her 107-year-old editor. Pearly has also survived, but unlike Peter he remembers everything that’s happened — especially the part where he really, really wants to kill Peter.

Like so much else in the movie, Pearly’s burning hatred of Peter is never adequately explained. There’s a lot of discussion between him and Lucifer (Will Smith, in an amazing cameo) about the balance between good and evil, and humanity’s maddeningly tenacious grasp on hope, but nothing Peter is or does seems to merit this level of attention. Then again, Pearly is such a small fry that his powers don’t even extend to upstate New York — he can only operate within the five boroughs of New York City. Maybe he doesn’t have anything better to do than obsess over Peter.

Fortunately for him, the forces of good don’t appear to be much more effective. Winter’s Tale is predicated on the notion that each person is on Earth for a specific reason, but based on the way the narrative strings those reasons together, God, or whoever is leading the charge, seems to have an awfully Rube Goldberg-ian approach to problem-solving.

All of these incredible events — the Pegasus, the era-spanning love, and the total breakdown of the American Social Security system such that a centenarian is forced to hold down a day job — lead to one miracle late in the game that, frankly, seems pretty minor as far as miracles go. The moment is so anticlimactic that the “special purpose” view of life starts to feel less inspiring and more depressing. I’d prefer to think that my everyday life matters, rather than that it’s all just filler surrounding a single shining moment.

Sentimental types may be more forgiving than I am of Winter’s Tale, particularly its lovey-dovey first half, but I’d guess that even most of those will grow frustrated as the story gets less and less coherent. Fairy-tale logic is all well and good, but it can only explain away so much; for a story to be effective, it still has to have a solid foundation. We need to believe, 100%, that this is just the type of world in which equine angels randomly appear, and that Beverly and Peter share a once-in-a-century passion. I didn’t, so everything else fell flat.

Winter’s Tale is an ambitious work, and it’s obvious that Goldsman and his team undertook this project with great care and affection. Production designer Naomi Shohan and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel make turn-of-the-century New York look beautiful, romantic, and a little bit magical, and Farrell in particular works overtime to remain convincing even as the story around him goes careening off the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s not enough. For all of its good intentions, Winter’s Tale utterly fails to take flight.

/Film rating: 3.0 out of 10.0

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