“Magic is everywhere around us, you just have to look, look closely.”
Indeed, if you look closely at Akiva Goldsman’s flimsy and unfulfilling take on “Winter’s Tale,” there is a bit of magic there, but it appears to be of the residual, refracted variety, leftovers from the source material it has cannibalized on its journey to the big screen. Based on a hefty novel of the same name, Goldsman’s film distills down the swirling, magical story of “Winter’s Tale” to its most basic bits, styled as fairy tale-like love story between a pair of doomed lovers who just might be able to work some miracles from the very fabric of their adoration.
Primarily set in the early part of the twentieth century (and later moving forward to present day for its final act), “Winter’s Tale” centers on orphan-turned-thief Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a New York City ragamuffin who has somehow ended up on the bad side of the bad side of the law. Peter’s skills apparently once proved prodigious to career criminal (and, yes, actual demon) Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), but he’s run afoul of the guy, and the film’s action leads off with Peter literally on the run from Pearly and his goons.
That’s when the horse shows up. The magical winged angel horse named Athansor who is apparently a type of guardian dispatched to help people who are on the verge of creating a miracle. Peter doesn’t seem like the type of guy who is bound for miracle-making, but he also doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who was set adrift in a model boat by his ill immigrant parents and pushed towards Brooklyn, but that still serves as a plot point of the feature.
Pragmatic Peter decides to leave the city for the winter in order to get away from Pearly, but Athansor has other ideas – staidly stopping in front of the fancy Penn family mansion and refusing to budge. Peter takes Athansor’s stubbornness to mean that he should rob the place (obviously?) and breaks in, unaware that the rooftop tuberculosis tent he lands next to (after scaling a wall in true burglar fashion) was just recently inhabited from the ailing heiress Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay).
Beverly is engaging – and, despite her condition, she pops and crackles with life – so while the inevitable “love at first sight” conceit that frames up her and Peter’s unlikely romance is old hat, the pair do come with some palatable chemistry. Farrell effectively injects charm into the film, and the emotion exhibited by his Peter Lake always rings true, even as the rest of the film does not. Beverly may be ill, but she’s also a little bit predisposed to the magic of things (hey, fever will do that to you), and her pontifications on light soon spawn plenty of visual tricks, the kind that employs sparkles and lens flares and stars and light tracks and the like (to drive the point home, Peter actually lives in the ceiling of Grand Central, a ceiling that is quite memorably and beautifully covered in a mural of the heavens).
Peter and Beverly’s love affair is doomed by plenty of outside forces – her consumption, Pearly’s desire to kill Peter – and it’s no surprise that she eventually passes away, no miracles to be found here, and Peter finds it hard to live in the world any longer. Which is convenient for Pearly, who promptly tracks down Peter and his horse, tossing the man into the East River while the horse flies off to who-knows-where. It is, however, a surprise when an amnesiac Peter emerges from the water soon after, knowing that he is missing something and unable to place it.
Doomed to wander the city for one hundred years, it’s never quite clear how Peter spends the majority of his time, makes his money, or works toward discovering his identity (beyond spending his days sketching large scale versions of Pearly’s bloody finger-painting of Beverly). After emerging from the river, Peter returns to the cemetery where Beverly is buried, and while the place clearly has significance for him, it appears that he never wanders the gravestones to find a familiar name. (Never mind that the Penn family appears to be an influential Manhattan family that continues to exist in the public eye, and it’s hard to imagine that it takes a century for Peter to see their name in lights, or stone, as it were.) Peter eventually confesses to feeling as if he was in “a deep fog,” but that doesn’t explain how he was able to secure his own apartment in a city notorious for its troublesome real estate.
Adapted from Mark Helprin’s beloved 750-plus page novel of the same name, there’s little doubt that Goldsman had to chop large sections of story, character development, and exposition in service to crafting a film out of the major tome, but the director appears to have gone way too far, as long stretches of the film make absolutely zero sense. Even a brief review of the plot and various moving pieces of Helprin’s book reveals that Goldsman has made a significant number of edits and changes, many of which detract from what makes the book both consuming and actually magical, all of which should rile fans of the original novel to an alarming degree.
It’s as if Goldsman, a filmmaker who has long proclaimed this adaptation as a personal passion project, pulled a dozen pages from the book at total random and then cobbled them together into one unwieldy, nonsensical mass. (By way of example, the world of Helprin’s novel is significantly more magical than the one presented in Goldsman’s film, an element that certainly must help the overall sense of wonder and whimsy go down with far more ease. Elsewhere, characters are cut and time periods are messed around, and large subplots are bastardized wholesale. It is baffling.)
Not every book should be made into a film and, as appears to be the case with “Winter’s Tale,” not every book can be (especially this one).