Where to start with this damned thing?
Spoilers out the ass, but you don’t care.
Every so often, there’s a film–usually a bad one–that has the stink of a flop all over it. But not just any kind of a flop–an ambitious flop, one that money was clearly spent on, one that was probably mauled in the editing room, one that someone wanted very badly to make–and such a flop is Winter’s Tale, based on Mark Helprin’s novel, which will doubtless maintain its modest popularity when this trainwreck is long forgotten. Akiva Goldsman, an Oscar-winning screenwriter, adapted the novel and made his feature directing debut with it, but I doubt whether he’ll get such an opportunity again.
The plot, as best as can be summarized:
Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a house thief in 1916 New York, who has run afoul of his former boss, crime lord Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), and is about to be killed by Soames’ men when he finds a horse and rides it to safety. He uses the horse in his burglaries, and one night the horse leads him to the home of the Penn family, where daughter Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) is dying of TB and must be kept ice-cold at all times to combat her fever. Peter is about to burgle the home, but on encountering Beverly (who is there alone), he abandons his plan, and they begin to fall in love. Soames has a vision–he’s a demon, you see–of a red-headed girl connected to Peter; Beverly being that redhead, he tracks her down, presumably to kidnap her, but Peter and the horse arrive and rescue her, and when Soames gives chase, pursuing them to the edge of a cliff, the horse sprouts wings–it’s a magic horse, you see–and floats down to the frozen Hudson, and Soames is unable to pursue–because he’s the demon-ruler of NYC only, and can’t leave the city without permission, you see.
Peter takes Beverly to her family’s vacation home, where he meets and impresses her father (William Hurt) and little sister Willa (Mckayla Twiggs). He and Beverly grow ever closer, and a calming trick he uses to keep his nerve on the job seems to have some effect on her fever–she was melting the snow she stood on, and now she’s not, you see. Willa shows Peter a bed she had placed in the greenhouse, upon which a dead person could be awakened by true love’s kiss (or something like that)–remember this for later. Soames meets with a fallen angel (I think) and has him poison Beverly with some magic poison that kills you if you get too excited (or something like that–the opposite of Crank). Beverly and Peter go dancing, and afterwards make love–she dies moments later. Peter takes her to the bed in the greenhouse, but kissing her does not revive her. Somewhere in there, Soames goes to his boss, Lucifer (Will Smith–yes, that Will Smith), and…at some point we learn every person has one miracle in their life. Something like that. It’s kind of fuzzy to me now, honestly.
Back in NYC, Peter is confronted by Soames and his gang, who force him onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where Soames beats him and throws him into the water to die. But Peter emerges from the river, his memory wiped, and, not aging, apparently continues living until 2014, obsessively drawing the same picture of a redhaired woman looking at the moon over and over. Now, the film establishes that flashes of light are the universe at work, and one such flash causes Peter to encounter Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly) and her sickly daughter Abby (Ripley Sobo). Slowly, Peter starts to regain his memory, and while trying to research his past based on the fragmentary evidence he has, he gets Virginia’s assistance, and she finds an old photograph of him and Beverly, fully restoring his memory. He encounters the now elderly Willa (Eva Marie Saint), and some shit happens. I don’t really remember. He goes to Virginia’s apartment for dinner, and Abby has a seizure–she’s dying of cancer, you see–and afterwards Peter sees the same image he has been drawing for years in the form of Abby lying on her side, facing a streetlight. He realizes that she is the one who is to be saved on the greenhouse bed by a magic kiss.
Meanwhile, Soames (who of course still lives) discovers that Peter is still alive as well, and makes a deal with Lucifer: he will be allowed to leave the city and fight Peter, the loser of this fight dying a real, permanent death. Using the magic horse, Peter, Virginia, and Abby head for the Penn’s vacation home, but on arrival are confronted by Soames and his gang. The horse breaks the ice of the frozen lake they’re all standing on, killing the gang (in what I can only hope is an homage to Alexander Nevsky), and Peter and Soames have their showdown, which ends with Peter victorious. Abby is placed on the bed, Peter kisses her on the forehead, and she revives. Virginia and Abby are returned to their home, and Peter rides the magic horse into the sky, where he becomes a star–the fate Beverly predicted for all dead souls.
If you made it through all that, give yourself a cookie.
Again…where do you start with a film like this? Some might excuse some of the gaps in the plot in the name of fantasy, but I’m not letting it slide. There’s fantasy logic and there’s shitty logic, and one guess as to which type we’re dealing with here. The novel is quite a long one, and the film is under two hours (including credits)…and it shows. Oh God, it shows. Characters who are clearly important in the book are glorified cameos here. The film is off-puttingly dense, because the story never has any room to breathe–and it’s positively choked at times, as the convolutions pile up. And motifs, like the flash-of-light motif, rather than having any resonance, become irritants. Goldsman so botches the material that fantasy becomes contrivance.
And the fault is mostly Goldsman’s. He’s a fairly poor director, and the film lacks any real style or visual flair (pretty fatal for a fantasy), while his script only serves to make me question the book’s quality. I’m willing to accept that there was probably some editing-room chaos–the film is not too well edited–but given what they probably had to work with, I can’t blame the editors too much.
The cast is a mixed bag, but for the most part, they don’t help much. Colin Farrell is one of those actors you can usually count on to give it his all, and while Peter Lake is not one of his great performances, he seems to be doing as much as he can with the material, and captures enough of Peter’s haunted obsession and essential goodness to be the film’s MVP; that’s not saying much, but it’ll have to do. Findlay was a somewhat strange casting choice; I had never heard of her (she’s on Downton Abbey), and certainly some of the other contenders for the role would have been more interesting choices–I’d have particularly liked to have seen what Sarah Gadon would’ve done with the role–but all Findlay ultimately has to do here is look pretty and communicate the film’s fantastical philosophy (that everything is “connected by light”, that everyone gets one miracle, etc.), and she accomplishes that. It’s not a bad performance, but a totally forgettable one.
Russell Crowe hams it up as Soames, and is occasionally amusing, but as we learn more about Soames’ limitations–and as he proves to be a remarkably ineffective villain (he only throws Peter off the bridge because Peter doesn’t fight back)–Crowe’s performance loses steam, and ends up as a relative failure. Jennifer Connelly has very little to do other than look worried–she’s almost parodically worthless in the final scenes–and she does not waste much energy on this performance, being, it would seem, rather embarrassed by her presence. (She and Crowe will hopefully do much better in Noah.) Worse still is William Hurt, who so badly rushes his dialogue in his first meeting with Farrell (ostensibly to establish his credentials as a fast-paced publisher) that his total disinterest in the part becomes grimly clear. A scene where he grapples with the malfunctioning boiler of his vacation home, and says that he would “go down with the ship” and let himself be killed if the boiler explodes, is so limply played it’s laughable. It brings to mind a similar scene in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, except nowhere near as exciting. Hurt should be ashamed of himself, honestly, for giving so little of a shit.
The cast is otherwise not worth mention (though, seriously, what was Will Smith doing here?), but I’d just like to point out that Kevin Durand has a small role here, and he plays a role in Noah. What the fuck is that all about?
The technical aspects of the film are hugely uneven. One on hand, Michael Kaplan’s costumes are generally excellent, and the production design at times effectively captures 1910s New York–other times, though, everything feels fake and clean, and the sewer-lair where Satan and Soames meet is disappointingly drab. The special effects are unremarkable at best, and in the case of the horse’s wings, quite bad. That money was spent on the film (around $60 million, down from the original $75 million budget) is evident, but it’s just as evident the money ran out before they were finished.
And now, for some random thoughts I had that I’m not going to try and tie together:
– Peter’s early history is pretty ridiculous. His parents, Russian immigrants, are turned back at Ellis Island, apparently because his father has a pulmonary condition. Wandering desperately through the ship, a flash of light catches the father’s eye (ugh) and leads him to a model ship named “CITY OF JUSTICE”. He and his wife put baby Peter in this boat and set it adrift in New York Harbor, and the rest is offscreen history. But what makes this sequence ridiculous is that Peter’s parents, from their attire, appear to be decently well off. His father is clearly not a laborer. A heart condition (and he seems fairly healthy) seems shaky grounds for being sent back. It’s an admittedly minor aspect of the plot, and one which is just there to set up some shit that happens later, but whether the failure was in the script, the novel, or the costume design, it starts the film off on a bad foot.
– Beverly’s TB manifests itself mostly as a fever (she seems pretty healthy otherwise, if a bit pale), but her fever is so profound that the family must be kept ice cold, she sleeps in an open tent on the roof, and she bathes in frigid water. I’m not an expert on TB or its treatment, but is this anything like the experience of any actual victim of the disease? I’d give it a pass if it weren’t dwelt upon at such length, but we’re given far too much time to reflect on how stupid a plot device it really is.
– When Peter and Beverly sleep together, it’s a pretty major moment for them both: the loss of her virginity, the union of true lovers, and the action which by its excitement causes the magic poison to kill her. What we get is perhaps the most ridiculously PG-13 sex scene I’ve seen in a while; you can’t even really make the case that the scene is trying to capture the awkwardness of the moment, because it’s so nervously unerotic and ineptly staged.
– Peter, thanks to Beverly’s “miracle”, survives Soames’ attempt on his life and lives for the next century, seemingly without memory or aging. What he was up to in this time is not even touched on; at one point he goes into what may be his apartment and regards what seems to be the tuxedo jacket he wore when dancing with Beverly. So…what the fuck is going on in Peter’s life? The film doesn’t even try to explain, which…isn’t okay.
– Pearly Soames and his gang suck. Flat out suck. Early on, they have Peter cornered and are advancing on him, but so slowly that he has time to discover the horse and mount it before riding it away (to Soames’ consternation). Soames even tells them not to use their guns, but to use knives to prolong Peter’s suffering. Idiots. Then Soames turns out to be some sort of demonic middle-manager assigned to NYC, who can’t leave NYC. Which…that’s some lazy, arbitrary bullshit right there. So he has to appeal to his boss just to stop Peter and his miracle (and they make sure to mention that Evil is not doing too well in its fight against Good), and only after dealing with this can we have our real showdown (the Brooklyn Bridge confrontation consists of Peter kicking the gang’s ass, then letting Pearly head-butt him into submission before he’s tossed over the edge), which ends with Peter stabbing Soames in the neck with the name-plaque from CITY OF JUSTICE (long story), which…the damned thing has a rounded edge! It has no knifely value! What the fuck?!
– The novel was published in 1983, and its modern-day segments presumably take place around that time. Now, if Willa was 8 or 9 in 1916, she’d be about 75 in 1983, and Eva Marie Saint is…89, actually. Either way, the older Willa appears to remain quite active as a publisher, which makes sense for her age as given in the book…but going by the film, Willa in 2014 would be around 106, which…that’s pushing it just a little. Am I nit-picking? Yes, but it’s lazy writing nonetheless.
– Abby seems to be pretty healthy for a little girl dying of cancer. Same is true of Beverly. Same was true with the little girl in Elysium. For fuck’s sake, Hollywood, at least convince me these people are sick!
– “Everything is connected by light”? What is this, Cloud Atlas? No, because that movie was good. (Even if you didn’t go for it…it’s a damn sight better than this.)
– Random question: how’d they get Beverly’s body out of the greenhouse without discovering that she and Peter had screwed?
– Second random question: what the flying fuck are the “Coheeries”?
– How fucking quickly do Peter and Beverly fall in “true love”? It literally happens over a cup of tea. Between their first meeting and her death is, max, a week and a half. Fucking romances.