New York City is subsumed in arctic winds, dark nights, and white lights, its life unfolds, for it is an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built, and nothing exists that can check its vitality. One night in winter, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), orphan and master-mechanic, attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks the house is empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the love between Peter, an Irish burglar in his early 20's, and Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a young girl, who is dying. Written by
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It feels churlish to suggest it, but Winter's Tale might have benefited from another director making more sense out of Akiva Goldsman's script.
Directors making their feature-film debuts don't typically have their pick of Hollywood's finest (and busiest) stars - unless they're Akiva Goldsman, that is. For his fantastical romance epic Winter's Tale, the Oscar-winning screenwriter has corralled the likes of Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Colin Farrell and Eva Marie Saint: an accomplished cast that would make many a more seasoned director envious. The trouble is that Winter's Tale never really comes together as Goldsman clearly wants it to: the writing is smart and occasionally very good, but the film flounders when it should soar, losing rather than gathering pace and tension as it goes on.
The story - based on Mark Helprin's ponderous 1983 novel - follows petty thief Peter Lake (Farrell) from the early 1900s through to the present day. In 1916, Peter is suddenly declared persona non grata by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), his frankly insane, literally demonic Irish thug of a mentor. While on the run, Peter encounters a mysterious white horse that points him in the direction of the Penn mansion. Initially looking to steal himself something nice, Peter sets aside all thoughts of pilfering treasure from the Penns when he meets and swiftly falls in love with Beverly (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay), the beautiful, flame-haired mistress of the house who is slowly being eaten alive by consumption.
It's all very romantic, or so we're told, with a supernatural element folded into the love story: Pearly becomes convinced that Peter is destined to save a girl with titian hair, an action that would upset the teetering balance between good and evil. Indeed, Peter's burning love winds up keeping him alive for over a century, until he meets single mom/super-journalist Virginia (Jennifer Connelly) and her daughter in modern-day Manhattan. It soon becomes clear that fate, destiny and a whole lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo are at work here, and Peter will soon discover the healing and restorative powers of love itself.
To be fair, Winter's Tale is built upon a raft of quite interesting ideas. It hints at, rather than belabours, the notion of good and evil taking physical form: Pearly lurks through Manhattan, a gangster by trade and a demon by nature. When he decides to confront Peter for good and for ever, he's forced to fight on equal, mortal terms. It's a fantasy universe absolutely begging to be expanded, a fiction that could be real and is all the more tantalising for it.
But Goldsman, in juggling the various elements of his story, lets the opportunity slip him by, instead focusing on the love story in almost excruciating detail - even though he never really creates a connection between Peter and Beverly that rings true. Peter teaches Beverly how to escape her all-consuming fever by slowing her heart down, Beverly explains to Peter how she believes people rise to the stars to find their loved ones when they die - it's all intensely romantic, but hardly emotional. The film then flings a few more tropes and complications into the mix (Peter loses his memory, Peter winds up travelling through the future into our present, love will conquer all etc.), without really stopping to explain just how it all hangs together.
At least Goldsman has pulled together a cast worth watching, even when the film he's constructed around them isn't quite worth their salt. Farrell broods prettily in his boy-band haircut, clearly too old for the part but nonetheless playing it with great gusto. Paying Goldsman back for A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, Crowe marches through the silliness of his raging, bonkers character with strange amounts of joy. Pearly is easily the film's best character, unless you count the one played by another of Goldsman's Facebook friends (no spoilers, but this movie star is no doubt grateful to Goldman for a script that earned him bucketfuls of acting cred many years ago).
Swimming somewhere in the reams of quite lovely footage assembled by Goldsman and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, there's a great movie with great ideas. Once in a while, it bursts through - in the shadowy, dank dungeon of a demon's lair, ruled by Lucifer himself; or the snow- swept sparkle of a moonlit night - but, more often than not, it turns into Winter's Tale: an emotionally distant romantic drama that goes for lush, sweeping depth but comes up curiously cold and myopic.
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