Part moody meditation on love and mortality, part epic-sized battle between the forces of darkness and light, the lovely and baldly saccharine “Winter’s Tale” is an adult fairy tale shot through a gauzy lens of Valentine’s Day dreaminess.
It’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s first outing in the director’s chair, and his unabashedly romantic adaptation of Mark Helprin’s ambitious novel of magical realism makes a game but uneven attempt at wedding the book’s tricky physical and metaphysical properties on screen. But it’s a marriage that’s not altogether seamless.
Spanning a hundred years (from early 20th century to the present day) in a wintry, storybook New York City, the story juggles a timeless, star-crossed romance between a rakish young cat burglar, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell, a hunka-hunka roguish charm), and a fatally tubercular young heiress, Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findley, the similarly fated Lady Sybil of “Downton Abbey”), and a life-death struggle between Peter and Lucifer’s own murderous leprechaun, mobster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, sporting a jagged facial scar and a brogue as thick and dusky as a Guinness).
It’s all shot by great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel with a painterly eye that renders New York City – past and present, from Park Avenue mansions to Grand Central Terminal to Central Park meadows – both Currier-and-Ives quaint and realistically gritty at once.
Goldsman struck gold in his casting choices, and even the story’s more mawkish elements are somewhat redeemed by sharp, well-defined performances. Surrounding Farrell and Crowe is a potent supporting cast that includes William Hurt as poor Beverly’s kindly, newspaper mogul father; Jennifer Connelly as a modern-day mother who points Peter the way to redemption; the wonderful Eva Marie Saint as a lovely, time-spanning link to Peter’s past, and two button-cute newcomers, Ripley Sobo and McKayla Twiggs, as the tale’s miracle children.
Will Smith makes a surprise appearance – one that earned giggles from a preview audience – as sly, all-powerful Lucifer, who apparently lives in a damp, dungeon-like basement lit by a single, bare light bulb.
While much of the complex, metaphysical questing of Helprin’s novel is necessarily watered down in Goldsman’s version, “Winter’s Tale” does win admiration for its earnest ambition. It’s just when the sometimes sappy magic clanks up against the gritty realism that the film reveals itself as a slightly cracked fairy tale.
- Dennis King
2 ½ stars
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, Russell Crowe
(Violence and some sensuality)