Winter’s Tale is the directorial debut of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman – not someone whose work I generally admire – and had I the opportunity, I would have strongly suggested that he try something less ambitious for his first outing. Based on a 1983 novel by Mark Helprin, it presents a piece of magical realism set in New York City, involving demons and fairy horses and a centuries-long quest to find one’s destiny. It requires a delicate touch, one that Goldsman simply doesn’t possess. He means well and the film deserves credit for boldly leaping headlong into its premise. No one told it that it was such a far fall from there.
The pieces certainly look good, thanks to cinematography from Caleb Deschanel, beautiful New York settings and a heartfelt central performance by Colin Farrell. He plays Peter Lake, a man abandoned as a baby by his immigrant parents, grown to adulthood in the 19th century and now run afoul of a crime lord named Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). There’s more to Pearly than meets the eye, but Lake has a guardian angel looking out for him in the form of a magical white horse that randomly takes him where he needs to go. It inevitably leads him to the home of a wealthy young woman suffering from consumption (Jessica Brown Findlay), with whom his ultimate destiny appears to lie.
Goldsman does fine with the basics: establishing the overall tone and zeroing in on his star to carry the emotional load. It’s very, very hard to be this un-cynical in the 21st Century. Snarking comes too easily and the disdain we typically hold for the genuine can be overwhelming sometimes. Winter’s Tale is very, very genuine. It aspires to poetry and makes us want to believe in greater things than ourselves. Had someone like Neil Gaiman written this screenplay or Ang Lee stepped behind the camera, they might have pulled this off.
Unfortunately, that base flatlines the moment Goldsman tries to find the right emotional timing. He’s always half a beat off, which shatters the story into a million pieces almost before it leaves the starting gates. When you add flights of magic and religious overtones on top of an already tricky narrative, nothing about the film feels right. Weird questions pop up that it can’t really answer, save by moments of tepid plot exposition that read like hastily-papered-over logic holes rather than a functioning mythology the way it intends. What’s supposed to be serendipitous becomes contrived. What’s intended as whimsical grows forced. And developments intended to give us faith in a higher power feel like the shoddiest type of deus ex machina available.
Without knowing how to deliver the emotional payoff gracefully, Goldsman resorts to feeding it to us in big wet clumps, turning whatever strngth lay on the printed page into a bad joke. The cast seems game, but never finds their pacing beneath the indifferent direction, and as more and more details build up, the story spins wildly out of control. The finale hinges on an immensely flawed supposition by the main villain and the fate of a character we haven’t known for more than a third of the picture.
To that, you have to add the surprising lack of chemistry between the cast members. Everyone does well, they just don’t seem to be acting in the same movie. That comes on top of wildly disparate sections and a “romance for the ages” that resolutely fails to achieve the barest hints of a pulse. Even were the film less ambitious, these flaws might have sunk it. As it stands, Winter’s Tale reaches too high too soon and flames out well before it achieves liftoff. Goldsman remains Hollywood royalty, despite his spotty record as a screenwriter, and this likely won’t be his last stint behind the camera. One can only pray that he learns the lessons of this well-meaning misstep before then.