There’s no gentle way to say it. The movie version of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is spectacularly lousy.
When it came out in 1983, Helprin’s novel was widely admired among American literati. Personally, I gave it up after a few pages as a hugger-mugger of indigestible gobbledygook, “literary” in the most pretentious sense of the word. Perhaps I didn’t give the book a fair chance, but life is short. I don’t know how well writer-director Akiva Goldsman has served author Helprin; I can only speak to what he has put on the screen, and I saw every minute of that. It’s a mess.
The movie opens in New York, 2014. Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) walks the snowy streets looking lost. Almost immediately, the scene shifts to the 1880s, as a young immigrant couple wait with their baby at Ellis Island. Denied entrance to America for medical reasons, they return to their ship. In the salon, the father smashes a glass case containing a model ship called, with clanging symbolism, the City of Justice. The couple place their baby in the model and lower it over the side into New York Harbor. In the real world, this would be a death sentence, but in the magical (un)realism of Winter’s Tale, it’s the entrance to a charmed, if troubled, life.
Next, it’s 1916, and the baby has grown into Peter, on the run from a gang of toughs led by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, growling and mumbling in a halfhearted Irish accent). Just as the gang corners Peter, a white horse rescues him, galloping off with him and leaping a 15-foot fence. (The jump is child’s play: This horse can sprout wings and fly when it needs to, an equine guardian angel.) The horse leads Peter to a stately brownstone mansion. Peter breaks in to rob the place, but it’s not deserted. Left behind by her vacationing family is Beverly Penn, daughter of a wealthy newspaper editor (William Hurt). Beverly is played by Jessica Brown Findlay, who was killed off on Downton Abbey. As it happens, she’s not long for this world either. Beverly is dying of consumption, as tuberculosis was called in those days. She eases her fever by walking barefoot in the snow and sleeping in a snowbound tent on the roof. This treatment for TB was new to me. Apparently, it’s unique to the kind of universe where parents fling their children into the Atlantic Ocean to give them a better life in America.
One look at Beverly, and Peter decides to leave the jewels and silver and steal her heart instead, like Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run (“After 15 minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse.”). He wonders if its possible to love someone “so completely that they cannot die.” Beverly, for her part, laments, “I’m 21, and I’ve never been kissed on the mouth.” Peter sees to that kiss (and more), but the answer to his question is “No.”
After one night of bliss, Beverly dies in ecstasy. Peter grieves himself into amnesia, and thus we find him again in 2014—unchanged, but not knowing who he is. It’s here that he meets single mom Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly). She will help him find his destiny and deal with Pearly Soames, who has followed him (also unchanged) down the years, with the help of a mysterious satanic character called the Judge (Will Smith).
Peter also reunites with Beverly’s kid sister Willa. We last saw Willa as a solemn 9-year-old in 1916 (Mckayla Twiggs). Now she’s older (Eva Marie Saint) and is running the newspaper she inherited from her father. This probably worked in 1983 when the novel came out; updating to 2014 makes Willa about 107 and raises doubts about how well Goldsman thought through his adaptation. (Ms. Saint, for the record, is only 89, and a youthful 89 at that.)
I have barely scratched the surface of the limp, dimwit whimsy that burbles through Winter’s Tale. The movie is so deliriously lost in itself that nothing rings true. Its sentiments sound high-flown and poetic, but they’re sheer gibberish that say nothing. Its characters are one-dimensional stereotypes rather than archetypes, its unspeakable dialogue impervious to the efforts of a talented cast. The term “epic fail” was coined to describe calamities like this.