Mark Helprin’s bestselling 1983 novel Winter’s Tale, which is almost 800 pages of magic-realist invention, lush lyricism, narrative acrobatics and visionary imagery, has earned both a devoted following and critical praise. Set in a mythical New York, it features a noble 19th-century burglar, Peter Lake, who escapes from a gang and their psychotic leader, then falls in love with the daughter of a newspaper tycoon, and is then transported on a flying white horse ahead 100 years, for a new set of characters and an apocalyptic finale.
Although the novel may not be to everyone’s taste – reading it feels a little like crossing an Alps of moonbeam-lit whipped cream – it’s definitely some kind of literature. As for the new movie adaptation, the artistic judgment can be less qualified: It is sincerely, painstakingly and astonishingly awful.
Winter’s Tale is the directorial debut of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend), and he manages to bring some of the stars from his previous films, including Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Will Smith. He has picked sequences from the book without building a persuasive infrastructure, removed entire sections, rewritten and reduced the ending, and in lieu of Helprin’s quasi-theological speculation, substitutes a mawkish time-travelling romance.
All this is bound together with an interminable series of vaguely spiritual-sounding observations and speculations, both in dialogue and voice-over. “Magic is everywhere around us” and “each baby born carries a miracle inside” and “everything is connected by light.” Then there are the questions: “What if we are all part of a great pattern which we may some day understand?” Or, “Is it possible to love someone so much they can’t die?” Can you make a movie out of phrases from a Daily Affirmations calendar? Not a chance.
In the film’s sumptuous historic and still-bearable first half, in the late 19th century, a baby is set adrift by his immigrant parents, who have been denied entry because of illness. A couple of decades later, he has emerged as Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), who is on the lam from a gang of ruffians with knives and guns. They’re the Short Tail gang, and their leader, Pearly Soames (Crowe), is a mad, violent man whose face is crossed with angry red scars (which bulge out in a cheesy CGI effect when he’s enraged). But, before he gets shot and stabbed, Peter finds a white horse, which he mounts, and it leaps over his attackers’ heads and transports him to safety.
Later, the horse leads Peter to a Manhattan mansion, which he decides to rob. Instead, he meets a beautiful young woman, Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay, of television’s Downton Abbey), who is the terminally ill daughter of a rich New York newspaper baron (William Hurt). Beverly is unexpectedly appreciative of the arrival of a burglar, and says she has never felt a man’s mouth on hers. After some tactful delaying, winning Dad’s respect (he fixes the mansion’s monstrous furnace) and the trust of Beverly’s little sister, Willa (Mckayla Twiggs), Peter gives into Beverly’s request to make passionate love to her, after which she promptly dies.
Throughout, this courtship, Pearly Soames has continued to pursue Peter to do him in, in league with his overseer, Lucifer (a grizzled and earringed Will Smith, who’s ridiculous, with an electronically altered voice and pop-out, CGI fangs). Eventually Pearly catches Peter on a bridge, where he head-butts him and tosses him into a river, after the magic horse flies off the bridge on wings of flickering light.
An increasingly Christ-like Peter finds himself a century later bearded, long-haired and with no memory, a homeless man in contemporary Manhattan. Handily, he meets and befriends newspaper reporter Virginia (Connelly) and her daughter Abby (Ripley Sobo), who has terminal cancer. Virginia helps him discover his earlier identity and Peter helps her by performing the miracle he was destined to perform, and Willa, who must now be well over 100, turns up again, played by Eva Marie Saint. Meanwhile, both the horse and Pearly Soames, who’s still itching for a showdown, have also jumped the time gap.
Winter’s Tale isn’t gleefully bad. Mostly, it feels embarrassing, for everyone involved. Farrell struggles to find emotional coherence in inflated kitsch. Crowe goes off the deep end, into comic-book grotesquerie. They do not appear to be in the same film, or possibly even breathing the same air.
By way of small compensation, scenes of New York, historic and contemporary, are beautifully composed, and shot with muted elegance by Caleb Deschanel – but then New York is already a city of fantasy, without any need for flying horses.