“Winter’s Tale,” based on the acclaimed novel by Mark Helprin is deeply romantic but also pretty daffy. There are exquisite images and some grand themes but also some clangers, some murky mishmash in the set-up, poorly designed special effects, and one badly botched miscasting that throws everything out of whack.
The exquisite images are not hard to come by with Colin Farrell along with “Downton Abbey’s” Lady Sybil, Jessica Brown Findley with auburn hair that makes her look like a pre-Raphealite dream, and a white horse who looks like he should be pulling Cinderella’s coach. The setting feels like a fairy tale, too, first turn of the 20th century Manhattan and then a fabulous snow-covered mansion out in the New York countryside.
Farrell plays Peter Lake, left behind as a baby in America when his immigrant parents were rejected for health reasons and sent back to Ireland. They put him in a model boat with the nameplate “City of Justice” and set him off toward the shore. When we meet him, he is a thief, formerly allied with a brutal, scar-faced crime boss named Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Everyone has very literary names in this story except for the horse, who is called Athansor in the book but here is just known as Horse even though, according to one character, he is really a dog.
Now Soames is determined to kill Lake. Rescued once by a mysterious white horse, Lake knows he has to get out of town. He goes on one last expedition to steal enough to pay for his journey. When he is ready to leave just before dawn, the horse refuses to budge. Lake sees the family leaving a luxurious townhouse and decides to see what he can take. He has an intuitive skill with mechanics and easily breaks into the safe.
But one member of the family has stayed behind. Her name is Beverly Penn (Findley) and she is dying of consumption (the 19th century term for tuberculosis). She has to be surrounded by cold all the time, and the family has gone to the country house ahead of her to prepare a tent for her to sleep in. Lake steals nothing but her heart, and loses his own in return. Because she knows she is dying, smaller problems like his being a thief do not really bother her. “What’s the best thing you’ve ever stolen?” she asks him. “I’m beginning to think I haven’t stolen it yet.” Instantly, he knows that his purpose in life is to protect her.
So far, so good, but then the argle bargle about transcending time and everything being connected starts up and it feels like the rules change at random. Or, at least, that a nearly-800 page book lost big chunks in the translation to the screen by writer-director Akiva Goldsman. This relationship between Lake and Penn seems to have some grander purpose, which is why Soames is so determined that he must stop it. He seeks permission from “The Judge,” played by Will Smith. It’s not entirely Smith’s fault that it is at this point things start to completely fall apart. The role is poorly conceived and written and he is catastrophically miscast. Lake ends up getting somehow catapulted into the present day but without his memories. As he tries to piece things together, the pieces of the movie come apart. There are way too many fortune cookie-style pronouncements about eternal battles between good and evil, miracles, destiny, and how we are all connected themselves, even a few from the underused Graham Greene who appears briefly just to throw out some deep thoughts about how God, the devil, angels and demons are just “the newer names” for the forces he describes. Penn says, that “the sicker I become, the more clearly I can see that everything is connected by light.” But by the end, nothing in this movie feels connected to anything.
Parents should know that this film has sexual references and a situation, supernatural and crime violence, some disturbing images and scary surprises, sad death, and brief strong language.
Family discussion: How are the rules for this world established and why are they important? What could only Beverly understand as a result of her illness?
If you like this, try: “Stardust,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” and “The Fountain”