There’s a reason Mark Helprin’s quasi-religious book of spiritual hokum Winter’s Tale has sat around for thirty years waiting to be adapted into a feature film. Dense, messy, and largely inept as a piece of romantic fantasy, it sits idle on the page no matter how many soaring speeches, flying horses, or fateful expressions of eternal love he poured into the voluminous tome. But superstar writer/producer Akiva Goldsman has always had an aching to adapt the material for his directorial debut, and while he dialed up all of his celebrity pals to get the project off the ground, no amount of star power can pump life into such an inert offering.
It’s not totally Goldsman’s fault as the source material is an incomprehensible, unwieldy slog, forcing the filmmaker to kick to the curb huge chunks of the story and numerous important characters. Without the streamlining effort we’d be talking about an incomprehensible 5-hour epic that by the end of it would still have audiences wondering what the sh*t they just sat through. As it stands, fans who plowed through the novel will be left disappointed that so much has been altered without any real benefit. Those new to the story will be curious how a film with such glowing rhetoric about fate, destiny, and the power of love can have so little heart.
Colin Farrell puts on his Irish charm to modest effect as Peter Lake, a petty thief navigating the tough streets of 1814 New York City. Lake’s family had been immigrants turned away from entering the country, but they floated their baby boy to America in a replica ship. Growing up an orphan he turned to crime and fell in with brutal gangster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, scarred and sneering), who for unknown reasons now wants to kill Lake. Cornered by Soames’ gang, Lake happens upon a magical white horse that becomes his “guardian” and friend, saving him on numerous occasions. The horse, which in the novel is known as Athansor, has a richer backstory that the film largely ignores, leaving us to wonder what the animal is and why it chooses Lake. We also come to learn that Pearly isn’t just another crime boss; he’s literally on the side of the demons battling against the forces of good and taking his evil marching orders from Lucifer himself, played with hysterical awfulness by Will Smith. Goldsman must have incriminating I am Legend photos stashed away somewhere
After escaping on his magical steed, Lake is encouraged by the horse, not quite in Mr. Ed style but kind of telepathically, to rob the mansion home of a wealthy newspaper editor (William Hurt). The decision proves to be a fateful one as he meets the beautiful, flame-haired Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), and despite his coming to rob the place, the two fall instantly in love. Not just an ordinary love, but the type of love that transcends time and space. And transcend their love does as the film inexplicably leaps forward in time to the present with Lake as a stumbling amnesiac drawing images in the pavement and easing his way rather easily into the life of a mother and her sickly daughter (Jennifer Connelly and Ripley Sobo). Neither seems all that concerned about the incredible circumstances surrounding Lake’s presence in our time. Nobody seems all that concerned about anything, really. Except for Smith, who seems positively appalled that he’s in this movie. Crowe is cheesy enough that we can assume he’s having fun helping out his Cinderella Man scribe.
Beautifully shot in storybook flourishes by Caleb Deschanel, it’s forever burdened by Goldsman’s bloated script and Hans Zimmer’s intrusive score. Not even the acclaimed musical maestro can get any emotion to ring true as Goldsman explores existential themes with the deftness of a lead weight.
Belief in miracles and the power of faith form the backbone of Helprin’s story, and perhaps to an audience of the converted that’s enough to overlook all of the fantastical contrivances that remain unexplained. But for those who require at least a little bit of plotting and characterization, the utter lack of either will be a constant frustration that Goldsman never seeks to correct. Often ranked high on the list of books deemed unfilmmable, it would have been better if Winter’s Tale remained unfilmed.