A romantic fantasy movie with ambition mostly succeeds but for uneven direction
San Francisco Chronicle
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 14, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 03:02 a.m. HST, Feb 14, 2014
At the very least, "Winter's Tale" is something different. It's a romance with fantastic elements, utterly lacking in cynicism, heading straight for the grandest emotions and deepest issues in life — love, death, time — without anybody worrying that the audience won't buy it or, worse, start laughing. It is partly a failure, but mostly it succeeds, and the film's aspiration is so enormous that that's enough for a moving experience.
The film's flaws will most probably be attributed to the story, based on a novel by Mark Helprin, about a thief who falls in love with a consumptive heiress in the New York City of 1916. But no, the story is not to blame, and neither is the screenplay, by writer-director Akiva Goldsman, nor the performances. No, the fault here is with Goldsman's direction, which is in many ways lovely, but is uneven in one crucial particular.
The problem, the movie's one problem, is that Goldsman seems unable to locate a balance point of harmony for all the story's disparate elements — fantasy, fairy tale, supernatural morality fable and saga of old New York. It's the director's job to fashion the specific universe in which a story can make perfect sense, and sometimes Goldsman just doesn't do that, so that plot shifts that should have been easily accepted seem jarring. But then Goldsman, a seasoned screenwriter ("A Beautiful Mind") who has heretofore directed only a handful of TV show episodes, has really bitten off a tough assignment for his first feature film.
Otherwise, Goldsman does pretty well. He brings off an early key scene, in which the thief, Peter (Colin Farrell) — on the run from his demonic (literally) mob boss (Russell Crowe) — hits it off swimmingly with the young heiress, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), while in the course of robbing her house. Their almost instant spirit connection becomes believable because both, in their different ways, are desperate to stay alive, and each sees the other as embodying life's promise.
Beverly is the story's great creation. Only 21 and living with a death sentence, she claims that the sicker she gets, the more she can see "that everything is connected by light." In a sense, she is halfway between worlds, still grounded in the physical, but with her head already turned to the next place. This kind of ethereal carnality is always effective in movies, at least with the right actress, and newcomer Findlay is perfectly cast. She makes Farrell's job easy. He just has to stay open and allow Peter to be a witness to radiance.
This radiance becomes tangible in the film's cinematography, which makes the actors look like cut-glass figures, sharp against the glowing backdrops. Even the night scenes glow with the blue-green light of a Hollywood moon, and they convey the sense of magic in the midst of things. For two-thirds of its running time, "Winter's Tale" is like this and can do no wrong. And then in the last third, things do go wrong, with some tonal weirdness and story elements that are far-fetched or are allowed to feel that way.
By holding his character together, amid the shifts and turns, Farrell holds the emotional thread together, which is to say, he holds the movie together. Though a crook, Peter is a character of complete purity and honesty, and it's a pleasure to watch how Farrell plays that, whether in the movie's sole love scene — the most beautiful, so far, of 2014 — or in his dialogues with other actors. Whether speaking to a child, or to William Hurt as the sick girl's father, or to Eva Marie Saint as an old friend from days past, you can see Farrell striving, sometimes pausing, to say the truest thing in the simplest way.
These are virtues too strong to discount, and they easily make up for some of the last third's awkwardness. Besides, "Winter's Tale" has a magic white horse, and these days you just can't see enough of those.