Almosts Might Leave You Rooting For This Fairy 'Tale'
Winter’s Tale hop-scotches through time, making far-fetched connections between characters and does all it can to make an audience feel its magic.
It’s almost magical; it’s almost a gorgeous movie about New York City; it’s almost a good love story.
The picture misses crucial marks, yet at the same time there’s something honorable about the film and even earnest, so you might find yourself rooting for it to be just that little bit better than it is.
Winter’s Tale starts with one of those fairy tale-like narration that make you wonder just what you missed: “What if once upon a time,” intones a young woman narrator, and then something about stars or no stars, and it’s supposed to feel dreamy but comes off a little bit confusing. Then comes a touch of New York in 2014, after which the film jumps back to 1895, until it settles down in 1914 long enough for you to get your legs under yourself. In 1895, at Ellis Island, immigration officers turn back a young couple because the man supposedly has a pulmonary problem. The young parents don’t know what to do, and they have a baby, whom they set adrift on a small model boat called “City of Justice.”
Shift to 1914 and that baby has grown into Peter Lake (Colin Farrell). Peter is an accomplished thief in dutch with his menacing boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). On an impulsive house burglary, Peter encounters the consumptive daughter of the house, Beverly Penn, played by Jessica Brown Findlay. They fall in love, and before you know it, all sorts of complications have appeared, involving time, magical prophecies, Pearly as an agent of the devil and the wonderfully casual devil himself (Will Smith), who doesn’t mind if his underlings call him Lou, instead of the more formal Lucifer.
That’s a lot of plot and complication, and the movie has a long way to go. It’s hard to shake the feeling that if there were less, and if the film didn’t try so hard, it would all come out better than it does.
What holds the film together, though, is acting strong enough to bridge the gaps in a movie that doesn’t always fit together. Russell Crowe with his tremendous physicality, makes the kind of heavy who really might persist through a hundred years of chasing the ephemeral Peter Lake. Jessica Brown Findlay is radiant enough to make a guy chase her for a century.
There are lovely episodes. The visual changes in New York over 119 years can be touching. The first conversations between Peter Lake and sickly but gorgeous Beverly shimmer with a light repartee that makes you believe these two characters have fallen head over heels in love with each other. High in the upper reaches of New York’s magnificent Grand Central Station, Peter Lake hides a box that contains marvelous things, like the name plate of the little boat that held him, which in turn – as happens in fairy tales – becomes an important implement. But before Peter goes to the box, shots of the huge open first floor of the train station give an enormous feeling of expanse, of opening up, and then the film looks straight up at the starry sky that’s the ceiling, and through a hole in that architectural sky, into the great expanse of the cosmos.
Other times the movie looks forced. A white horse is plenty magical on its own, so when it sprouts kitchy filmy wings, it’s overkill. The story connects consumptive Beverly in 1914 with a sick young girl in 2014, and the picture strains to make the connection stick. The film has also not figured out how to match cold and sterile CGI images with the warmth the movie aims for in story and picture.
Happily, the sweet and touching times hold their power longer than the other times. You don’t come out of Winter’s Tale knowing that a great filmmaker and film have carried you along, but you haven’t been cheated either.
Let’s not sneeze at modest pleasures.