Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Akiva Goldsman

Stars: Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Eva Marie Saint, William Hurt, Jessica Findlay Brown.

“Magic is everywhere around us, you just have to know where to look,” says the narrator of this whimsical fantasy/romance, which has been released in time to cash in on the Valentine’s Day goodwill. But it will take more than magic or a miracle for the messy and incoherent Winter’s Tale to seduce audiences into going along for the ride. Shakespeare it’s not!

Set in an alternative New York in the early part of the 20th century, this is a rather peculiar tale that mixes doomed romance with crime drama, inexplicable supernatural phenomena and fantasy. But none of the disparate elements actually gell together satisfactorily, and Winter’s Tale will have many still scratching their heads and wondering what the heck they had just witnessed a week after leaving the cinema. Part of the problem lies with the misleading advertising campaign that promotes this as a pure romantic melodrama for the romantically inclined.

The film opens in New York in 1916, where angels and demons walk amongst the population wrestling for control of the five boroughs of the city. These forces are controlled by the malevolent crime boss Pearly Soames (a bloated Russell Crowe with a bowler hat, a facial scar and a broad but fake Irish accent). An orphan raised on the tough streets of Manhattan, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a thief and a former associate of Soames’, but now is on the run from his henchmen. Soames works for the Devil himself and is in the business of trying to kill off miracles and destroy hope.

Lake breaks into a lavish Upper West Side mansion across from Central Park, where he encounters the sickly Beverly (Jessica Findlay Brown, from tv’s Downton Abbey), the daughter of newspaper tycoon Isaac Penn (William Hurt, wasted in a thankless role). Beverly suffers from consumption, and has to remain cool and housebound. But Peter and Beverly fall in love, and Peter believes that he has been put on this earth to save her. But this breathless romance soon gives way to lots of supernatural nonsense about miracles, reincarnation, and a flying white horse that turns up to save Peter from Soames’ clutches in the nick of time.

Then the film leaps forward nearly a century to contemporary New York. We meet Peter again, not looking a day older, but now he has no memory of who he is. Until he meets newspaper reporter Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly), who helps him trawl through some newspaper archives and helps him discover his identity. Virginia has a sickly daughter, and Peter comes to believe that he can save her. But he quickly crosses paths again with Soames, who also hasn’t aged a bit, and who becomes fixated on stopping him once again.

The film has been written by Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, etc), who also makes his directorial debut here, but he seems to have lost control of the material. This nonsensical melodrama is more in the vein of his 1997 script for Batman & Robin, which virtually destroyed the Batman franchise for Warner Bros. Winter’s Tale is adapted from the hugely successful 1983 fantasy romance novel written by Mark Helprin, a Dickensian-like fable which dealt with ambitious themes of mortality, predestination, redemption, the enduring power of love, and the deeper mysteries of human existence, and long thought unfilmable.

But what may have worked on the page definitely fails to ignite on the screen. It seems as though Goldsman has cherry picked certain key elements from the 672-page novel, without taking care to build the skeleton of the story from the ground up. He fails to satisfactorily explain the internal logic and mythology behind this alternative world. Some elements of Winter’s Tale and its wistful tone also evoke memories of the time travel romance from 1980’s superior Somewhere In Time, which starred Christopher Reeve. Much of the dialogue is clunky and laughable, and Goldsman’s direction is unsubtle and cloyingly saccharine. There is not enough backstory to the characters or the complicated relationship between Peter and Soames to allow audience to relate to the narrative to the characters.

Performances are a mixed bag, despite the presence of four Oscar winners in the cast. Crowe delivers an uneven and even unhinged performance as the immoral Soames. And the casual violence of his character – at one stage he shoots one of his henchman who has failed to please him – jars with the romantic elements of the plot. Farrell has plenty of roguish charm and charisma, but it is not enough to make his tortured Lake jump off the screen and into our consciousness.

Eva Marie Saint, who made her big screen debut back in 1954’s classic On The Waterfront, plays Willa Penn, a 111-year old newspaper editor who has the sprightly energy of an 80-year old, but her character doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Also not making a lot of sense is the thankless cameo by Will Smith, cast as the devil himself, although here he is known as “the judge” and spits hellfire and damnation amidst his anachronistic trappings.

Findlay has a luminous presence and vulnerability, and she is easily the best thing here. There is also some sparkling chemistry between Farrell and Findlay that adds some sexual tension to the material.

Winter’s Tale is something of a disappointment, especially given the wealth of talent on both sides of the camera. However, the film is great to look at, thanks to the soft lighting and gorgeous, moody cinematography of Caleb Deschanel, which gives the film a fairy tale like look and feel. And the recreation of a snow covered New York and Central Park circa 1916 is evocative, albeit realised with the help of some impressive CGI effects. Pity the same couldn’t be said for the laughable CGI effects that make the horse fly!



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