Winter’s Tale tries so hard to be epic it ultimately fails at telling what could have been a decent (albeit silly) tale of love, morals and a religious battle between angels and demons. Instead it wants to be mythic. It wants so badly to create a connection to the modern world that it forgets all it needs to do is make a human connection, something it actually accomplishes early on until it tries to be something it never was.
Attempting to tell a story that began in the early 1900s and ends in present day, had writer/director Akiva Goldsman only stuck to the period portion of his story, adapted from the Mark Helprin novel, he would have been far better off, especially considering that’s where he spends the bulk of his story, focusing on Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a master thief in 1916 that’s attempting to go straight.
Peter was orphaned in the early 1900s when his parents were denied admission at Ellis Island. They were sent back to Ireland, but they plopped Peter in the harbor off the side of their ship on the way back (yes, it’s as silly as it sounds) and he eventually washed ashore and was adopted by the Baymen of the Bayonne Marsh. Raised as one of their own, Peter eventually falls into a life of crime under the leadership of Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), whom we quickly learn is a demon.
Peter (so far unaware of the supernatural/religious nature of Pearly) decides being a thief isn’t his thing, leaves the gang and upon being chased and just seconds from being killed is rescued by a Pegasus, which he refers to simply as “Horse” and therefore so shall I. Following this event he thinks it’s best to get out of town and let things blow over, but before leaving he wants to steal a few things for the road.
Horse eventually leads him to the doorstep of Beverly Penn (“Downton Abbey” star Jessica Brown Findlay), a young girl that can see sparkly light (or something like life’s aura) and is also dying from consumption. Peter breaks into her home, she’s there, unafraid, offers to serve him tea and they fall in love.
These are the simplified opening moments and more than enough story to sustain the entire film as we’ll soon meet Lucifer and Pearly will continue to hunt down Peter as he begins to believe he just might be the miracle that will save Beverly’s life. As sappy and silly as it may sound, within its own contained world it actually works with performances from Farrell, Crowe and Findlay allowing us to buy into the melodrama.
Everything goes awry, however, when the story decides it needs to be more than a story of a destined love and the miracle that may save it. We eventually find Peter living 100 years later, in present day New York, still the same age and apparently unaware of who he even is. None of this is explained and suddenly a new plot thread picks up as if we’d been following it all along as Peter’s past comes back to life, thanks to the random (or is it?) act of kindness from one woman (Jennifer Connelly) and the ultimate revelation as to who her boss at a major New York newspaper is.
This last act of the film has no place in this movie. Goldsman does nothing to develop the characters and simply relies on the hope we’ve bought into the “miracles are happening all around us” theme he did nothing to develop over the film’s first two-thirds where he invested his time in a battle of good vs. evil and in building a story around the, seemingly, predestined meeting of two people from opposite sides of the tracks.
I can remember watching the film and almost astonishing myself as I thought, Hey, this isn’t too bad, when suddenly the story I’d been watching for the past hour was, more-or-less, abandoned for a series of random events of “destiny”, taking place a century after everything Goldsman had gotten us to care about.
Had Goldsman dedicated more time and reason to Peter’s life between 1916 and present day perhaps it would have been easier to care about what was taking place. Considering what was at stake by the film’s finale, it says quite a bit about how badly it fails when I say I didn’t really care at all which way it turned out.
The period-set portion of Winter’s Tale is drenched in melodrama and screwy spiritual nonsense, but it works. It’s kept simple, therefore making it easier to buy into. There’s also a little cameo appearance from Will Smith that is largely laughable, but within the free-wheeling nature of the story it’s perfectly acceptable and no less off-putting than the stodgy performance of William Hurt as Beverly’s well-to-do father.
I know there are people that believe a book should be adapted word-for-word and scene-for-scene, but it is quite clear there either wasn’t enough time to tell Helprin’s full story or Goldsman just wasn’t up to the task. One thing is for certain, rushing through a large portion of it wasn’t the best way to go.