“Magic is everywhere around us,” the narrator says early on in Winter’s Tale. Unfortunately there’s far too little magic in this clumsy attempt to marry fantasy and realism; the film doesn’t have the grace or imagination to bridge the gaps between the two.
Winter’s Tale is based on Mark Helprin’s popular fantasy novel about the orphaned thief Peter Lake (played by Colin Farrell with ’90s boy band hair) who in 1916 Manhattan falls in love with dying heiress Beverly Penn (Jessica Findlay Brown, last seen teaching viewers the meaning of the word “eclampsia” on Downton Abbey). Beverly suffers from the most romantic film disease — consumption — and is burning tragically with fever, although she’s glowing and beautiful and apparently well enough to rock some world-class hair extensions.
Peter wins over Beverly’s suspicious father (William Hurt), but there’s more at stake than Beverly’s looming death. A scarred, demonic thug by the name of Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) is after Peter, who once was his criminal protege.
Pearly’s obsession over capturing and killing Peter, however, turns out to be more than sour grapes over a betrayal. There’s a battle of good and evil raging over the fact that each human can perform one miracle. (Winter’s Tale is big on miracles; also there’s a lot of chatter about destiny and stars, too, so brace yourself accordingly.) Pearly wants to quash Peter’s miracle, which seems to be about saving Beverly, because this is what demons do, and Pearly is a demon. This doesn’t seem like a very ambitious plan if you compare it to the acts of the demons on the CW’s Supernatural, who at least try to bring about the apocalypse. But Pearly — who appears as his true self only in swift flashes in what is the single best visual trick of the film — is adamant.
The film is convoluted and hard to follow for viewers unfamiliar with Helprin’s novel. Director/screenwriter Akiva Goldsman seems to have no sense of pacing initially and only manages one truly moving moment in the film’s final half-hour, which takes place in the present day and involves Jennifer Connelly as a journalist whose story intersects with Peter’s.
Nor does Goldsman manufacture any moments of magical wonder in a story that should be full of them, not even in the scenes in which Peter is rescued by the flying white horse that reappears throughout the film. A mystical horse who may be a sort of guardian angel is always going to be tricky to adapt on film, but if this is the best Goldsman can manage, he might want to leave the fantasy to directors with a better feel for it.
Worst of all is a disastrously flubbed bit of casting that elicits laughter when the moment calls for menace. But derision is the emotion Winter’s Tale provokes, not the passion and misty-eyed sentimentality it longs to provide. Sadly, there are no miracles here.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Jessica Findlay Brown, Russell Crowe, William Hurt.
Writer/director: Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Mark Helprin.
Producers: Akiva Goldsman, Marc Platt, Michael Tadross.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 118 minutes. Violence, some sensuality. Playing at area theaters.