Winter’s Tale is a conundrum: On one hand, it is achingly beautiful for its naive and inspirational depiction of true love. On the other hand, the way director Akiva Goldsman tells the story is laughingly silly at times.
The issue is Goldsman’s unabashed use of the “magic realism” genre in which serious dramatic moments are set within a magical universe where miracles happen. Fantastical things can and do occur. In this film, that means there is a flying white horse with angels’ wings; an anti-hero (Colin Farrell) who does not age from 1916 to 2014; a heroine (Jessica Brown Findlay) who rises above illness but is rooted in tragedy; and a unique depiction of both the Devil (Will Smith) and his evil-doing agent (Russell Crowe). For kicks, there is even a mighty furnace at the country house of a newspaper baron (William Hurt) that rumbles like Hell’s eternal fires.
You might laugh, or cry, or both. Winter’s Tale is a melodrama that plays like an adult fairytale. Cynics will hate it. Romantics might like it, but still squirm at some of the absurd scenes.
The film is based on New York author Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel. Goldsman chose it for his feature film directorial debut. He is best known as a screenwriter, winning an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind and penning other scripts, among them Cinderella Man, I Am Legend, The Da Vinci Code and its sequel, Angels & Demons. He deals in spiritual idealism.
As in the novel, the character of Peter Lake (Farrell) is a thief who has broken off the relationship he once had with his mentor (Russell), who masquerades as a human and runs a gang of thugs in New York in the early 20th century. He is still doing the same in the early 21st century. And he is still obsessed with the soul, and mortal body, of his one-time protege.
Because of what happens in 1916, Peter Lake is still alive and un-aged in 2014. Struggling with amnesia, he looks for clues in the contemporary world to figure out what occurred in the earlier time period.
We know more than he does. In 1916, Lake falls madly, deeply, in love with a young woman (Findlay) who has never been kissed. She is also deathly ill with consumption, the old-school name for tuberculosis. In the 2014 era, our protagonist has connections to the young woman’s family, but he cannot puzzle things out.
The performances in Winter’s Tale range from terrific — Farrell and Findlay as the lovers — to terrible — in particular Jennifer Connelly as the mother of a cancer-ridden girl. In between, some of the actors are just mischievous and theatrical, among them the Smith-Crowe duo as Satanic types.
The film generally looks good, with a rich tapestry of details for the prologue set in 1895 and the scenes from 1916. But the “magic realism” sequences, including the flying horse and the manipulation of light as a metaphor for the spark of human life, are very uneven. At times, there is magic, at least in the cinematic sense. But, at other times, Goldsman’s movie looks a little childish.
Winter’s Tale will struggle to see the springtime.