Angels and demons. A man who doesn’t age. A snow-white pegasus. Colin Farrell’s hair. In every respect, “Winter’s Tale” is a movie rife with mysterious and unexplainable phenomena — elusive supernatural occurrences that its characters insist on describing as miracles. But the real miracle will be if audiences manage to suppress their giggles during this enormously cloying, sledgehammer-subtle feature directing debut by longtime writer-producer Akiva Goldsman, whittled down from Mark Helprin’s vastly richer, century-spanning novel of the same title. Agreeably daft at times, but more often painfully trite in its attempts to impose some grand narrative design on the story of two grievously ill young women and the man who may hold the key to their salvation, Warner Bros.’ Valentine’s Day release could nonetheless seduce viewers willing to go along with its offbeat romantic-fantasy elements, provided they don’t wander in expecting Shakespeare.
“Magic is everywhere around us,” a female voiceover whispers over the opening scenes. “You just have to look.” As if to prove its point, the film proceeds from a brazenly illogical premise, opening in present-day New York with a man moving through the upper rafters of Grand Central Terminal. He may be played by Colin Farrell, but he’s a lot older than he looks, as becomes clear (sort of) during an extended flashback to 1895, when he was just an infant arriving at Ellis Island with his immigrant parents. Mom and Dad are deported due to illness, but not before they succeed in setting the child adrift near shore, like Moses among the reeds, abandoning him to a lonely Lower Manhattan upbringing.
“We are all connected,” the voiceover continues helpfully. “Each baby born carries a miracle inside.” This baby more than most, for he will grow up to be the strapping, handsome Peter Lake (Farrell), a wily thief and professional charmer who, when we catch up with him in 1916, has run afoul of crime boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Pearly, it turns out, is no ordinary crook but rather an ill-tempered demon quite literally hellbent on destroying Peter before he can fulfill his miraculous destiny. That destiny is somehow entangled with the fate of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a lovely, consumption-ridden pianist who is charmed rather than creeped out beyond belief when she catches Peter burglarizing her father’s Central Park estate.
“The sicker I become, the more I can see that everything is connected by light,” Beverly coughs — spelling out, for the benefit of anyone not paying attention, that “Winter’s Tale” means to concern itself with the deepest mysteries of human existence. In a world where morality is governed by some strict combination of karmic laws and screenwriting manuals, a star appearing in the heavens means an angel has received his wings (Clarence, is that you?), and a magnificent flying horse named Athansor periodically swoops down out of the heavens to snatch Peter away from Pearly’s infernal clutches. According to this great cosmic blueprint, nothing happens by coincidence, and love is a force that can defeat death itself — as becomes apparent when Peter, having given himself body and soul to the dying Beverly, is suddenly whisked forward in time to the year 2014, where his divine purpose will be revealed.
Goldsman, who dealt with twinkly visions of an ostensibly more concrete nature in his Oscar-winning screenplay for “A Beautiful Mind,” doesn’t exactly shy away from the overweening grandiosity of his material. That extravagance was built right into Helprin’s massive (and massively successful) 1983 novel, a dazzlingly ambitious epic set in a fairy-tale New York replete with magical-realist inventions, pre-millennial portents and richly Dickensian characters — most of which, unfortunately, have been left by the wayside during the saga’s reductive journey to the bigscreen.
In “distilling from it what resonated with me the most,” per press notes, Goldsman appears to have plucked key moments and images from the book and twisted them into a familiar iconography of spiritual/sentimental kitsch — hey look, a little girl with cancer — with no regard for the delicacy with which Helprin eased the reader into his fanciful universe. The best miracles are those that creep up on you unexpectedly rather than endlessly announcing themselves, and the ones in “Winter’s Tale” are fatally obvious and self-congratulatory; it’s the sort of film that insists on taking you by the hand and steering you through a dark labyrinth for two hours, instructing you to watch your step every five minutes, only to switch on the lights and reveal you’ve been in a circular room with an exit in plain sight.
As an adapter, Goldsman is out of his depth. As a director, he is at least fortunate in his choice of actors, including Farrell, watchable enough to prevail past what appears to be a bird’s nest atop a buzz cut; Findlay, as luminous and intelligent a presence as she was in “Downton Abbey”; Jennifer Connelly as the somber mother of the aforementioned little girl with cancer (Ripley Sobo); and the always welcome Eva Marie Saint, making her first screen appearance in the eight years since “Superman Returns.” Appealing as these performers are, they all seem to be emoting in a sort of fog, as though too busy trying to parse the story’s metaphysics to connect with each other onscreen.
Certainly none of them seems to be working as strenuously as Crowe, who previously collaborated with Goldsman on “A Beautiful Mind” and “Cinderella Man”; adopting a facial scar and a rough Irish brogue, he hulks and growls his way through the picture like Mad Dog Coll with a bad head cold. It’s one of the more joyless performances of the actor’s career, and Pearly’s sudden blasts of CG-augmented rage seem to belong to another film entirely. Ditto the “Screwtape Letters”-style dialogues he carries on with his master Lucifer himself, played in an unbilled cameo by a grizzled Will Smith (he’s the Fresh Prince of Hell Air).
Production designer Naomi Shohan achieves a vivid enough approximation of turn-of-the-century New York in the film’s first half, making resourceful use of historic sites in each of the five boroughs — from Brooklyn’s cobblestone-paved streets and Queens’ Calvary Cemetery, to the docks of South Street Seaport and Surrogate’s Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. This is hardly the grand, teeming vision of the city set forth in Helprin’s novel. But as shot in moody, muted tones by Caleb Deschanel, it does make a suitably romantic, snow-dappled backdrop for a picture that attempts to merge the swooning passion of “Somewhere in Time” with the cozy uplift of “Touched by an Angel” — a subgenre in which the natural and the supernatural are invisibly and, for the most part, benevolently intertwined.
“What if we are all part of a great pattern that we may one day understand?” that voiceover pipes up again near film’s end. It’s a nice enough thought, and it may well leave the charitable viewer with a peculiar form of consolation: Rest assured, your efforts will bear fruit. Suffering today means rejoicing tomorrow. The next movie will be a better one.