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Film Review: "Winter's Tale"

Fantasy, mystery, magic, and romance


Although it's only February and the reviewers haven't quite used up their tiresome Top 10 lists, the new movie "Winter's Tale" might qualify as the oddest film of the year, right up there with "Old Boy." A fantasy/romance/weepie based on a novel by Mark Helprin, the picture employs a cast of well-known and accomplished actors, some stunning photography, and an offensively manipulative sentimentality to achieve its dubious effects.

The movie shifts confusingly back and forth in time, leaving clues to its meaning in each of its temporal zones, finally explaining all its mysteries through sheer, wishful fantasy. It shows a young couple on Ellis Island in 1895, turned away by a physician because of the husband's ill health. The couple then launches its infant son on a model ship, in hopes that he will find a future in America. That highly unlikely incident, right out of Greek mythology, with a nod to the Bible, prepares for the series of magical events that follow.

Winter's Tale
  • Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay in “Winter’s Tale.”

The time period jumps forward to the early 20th century, as the picture concentrates on a young man named Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), who lives in an attic space in Grand Central Station -- a significant location in the film -- fleeing a gang of black-suited thugs in derby hats led by a bullnecked brute named Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). He climbs a gate and finds a white horse waiting, apparently just for that moment; when he mounts, the animal takes off, jumps an impossible barrier, and like Pegasus, sprouts wings to rescue Peter from the gang.

A skilled thief, Peter attempts a burglary in posh apartment on Fifth Avenue, where he surprises an enchanting young woman named Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). They exchange some information about themselves, drink tea, and fall immediately in love. Their love story, darkened by the threat of Pearly Soames's quest for vengeance against Peter and Beverly's diagnosis of consumption, sustains the first half of this long motion picture.

After some impossibly romantic moments, some tragic, the picture in effect reopens in the present, with Peter still young and completely amnesiac, haunted by an image of a woman like Beverly, with flowing red hair. Pearly Soames, who actually is a demon from Hell, consults with the Judge (Will Smith, of all people), who may also be Lucifer himself (hey, I didn't write this stuff), seeking permission to leave his New York territory -- even demons must establish residency -- and dispatch Peter for good.

Accompanying all this nonsense, the characters indulge in quite a lot of sentimental theology, not only discussing the war between angels and demons, good and evil, for control of the Earth, but also suggesting that every human being possesses the power to work one miracle. Pearly desperately seeks to prevent that miracle, but Peter finally discovers his particular gift, a revelation that solves his mystery.

Blatantly stacking the emotional deck, the director uses both a lovely young woman dying of tuberculosis (she never coughs once, by the way) and more distressing, in the present day, a child dying of cancer. Despite the doomed love, the doomed people, and the demonic powers, naturally the good guys, the winged horse, and the miracles prevail.

"Winter's Tale" employs an all-star cast, including not only Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, William Hurt, and Will Smith, but also in its second half, Jennifer Connelly, and even the very elderly Eva Marie Saint, God bless her, playing a character apparently 100 years old. The actors all perform at least adequately, sometimes ingratiatingly. Colin Farrell projects a certain charm and Russell Crowe makes a really brutal villain.

Its images of New York City, especially its significant locations in Central Park, Fifth Avenue, and Grand Central Station, though they make a stunning backdrop for all the supernatural events and people, seem wasted in this excessive, maudlin fantasy. The movie looks expensive, but its shallow philosophizing and dime-store mysticism seem cheap. Someone must have thought that Mark Helprin's novel, which must be a very mushy work indeed, would make an appealing motion picture. Well, someone was wrong.