Certainly the most bizarre of this year’s Valentine’s Day openings, Winter’s Tale doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. At turns an incredibly sappy love fable and an incredibly vicious supernatural thriller, it never settles on either. I’m convinced that there’s some kind of idiosyncratic style to it that must have worked better on the page, but Akiva Goldsman is evidently not the writer or director to translate it to the screen.
To even begin to summarize the plot, I have to lay out some of the film’s metaphysics, which is confusing and sappy enough already. Evidently, every human soul has a miracle to accomplish, though it may take several lifetimes. After working their particular miracle, each travels up into the sky to become a star. Or an angel. Or the star is the light when a human becomes an angel. Yeah.
Anyway, the running count of humans “winning” by working their particular miracles is part of an ongoing contest between God and Lucifer. Yes, that’s traditional Christian theology on top of reincarnation. And there’s some amount of predestination in the mix, which seems to run contrary to the idea that there’s really any contest at all.
Anyway, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) is the Lucifer-appointed warden of New York City, bent on preventing people from accomplishing their miracles. One of his workers, an orphan named Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), has decided to quit, which Pearly doesn’t take well. But in his escape Peter finds the assistance of a white horse, which Pearly recognizes as an incarnation of a spirit called — with no further explanation — the “White Dog of the East”, who helps people accomplish their miracles. This leads Pearly to believe Peter is close to accomplishing his, and that must be stopped.
A divination involving a sudden, brutal murder of an innocent — and, to judge from the dialogue, virginal — waiter suggests a red-haired woman is involved. And indeed, Peter has just fallen in love with the ginger Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a young woman from a wealthy family. She is dying of “consumption”, but it can’t be tuberculosis, since she doesn’t cough once. Somehow she’s supposed to be kept cold at all times to slow the progress of her disease, to the point of sleeping in a tent on the roof of the house in the dead of winter. You’d think that this would be a great hook for some kind of cold-symbology, but it really, honestly goes nowhere.
All of this doesn’t even mention the second storyline, of which we see a clip of at the beginning and to which we don’t return until much later. This one takes place in 2014 and again centers on a character played by Farrell, but to say any more about the second would spoil the first, to whatever extent such a bizarrely convoluted plot.
The whole thing flits back and forth between saccharine “true love conquers all” fatalism and literally demonic violence, and everything in between is filled with more tonal awkwardness. One particularly jarring scene features Bevery’s father (William Hurt) insistently mispronouncing “claret” and “fillet”; it seems that it must be part of his characterization, but without any other scenes to back it up and round out his character it just feels weird and off-key. The entire movie is composed of haphazard, unmotivated scenes like this.
Mark Helprin’s novel just has to have held together more than this. I’m told that it, too, feels disorganized, but I’ve also heard that Goldsman took it on himself to cut a major character entirely. Whether the blame lies with him for butchering the novel, or with Helprin for writing a sprawling mess to begin with I can’t say, but either way the result isn’t as pretty as it wants to think it is.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.