There was so much that was wrong with Winter’s Tale that I am befumbled as to where to begin. I’ll start with what I liked. Will Smith is a handsome devil.
The 1983 novel Winter’s Tale received high praise and has appeared on several lists of best American novels of the last century. It takes place in a mythically structured New York – ergo one that is different from the place hit by Super Storm Sandy and smells like a foot. I have not read the novel, but I imagine like many films based on imaginative literary universes, the director, screenwriter, and producers were not skilled enough in marrying the word with the image. The storyline is so messed up that it is unfair to fault the actors.
The story begins in 1895 with a young couple being denied access to our fair land for health reasons. They have a baby and are desperate for him to have a better life so the husband breaks an Ellis Island glass case and steals a display schooner. While still in the harbor on the ship home to Ireland they lower their baby from the ship’s bow in the assuredly sea worthy display vessel as if he is Moses put forth on the Nile. Lots and lots of things wrong with that image. Mind you nothing remotely whimsical is presented or explained to the audience. No winks or magic. Just sick dad, toy ship, Hudson Bay, baby.
Flash forward to 1916 and apparently said baby did somehow survive. Now 21 Peter Lake is portrayed by 38 year old Colin Farrell. Normally when an actor plays a character that is ridiculously younger than his own biological age audiences play along because we naturally assume the storyline will have the character mature. In Winter’s Tale this does not happen. No sir, 38 year old graying at the temples with the start of a smoker’s cough Farrell is playing 21 and not just 21 in 1916 but 21 for nearly a century! It is seriously perplexing why the filmmakers simply did not change the years to accommodate the obvious discrepancies…or better yet hire an actor who is age appropriate for the character.
We first meet Peter running from demon/crime boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and his gang. They have him cornered when all of a sudden a white horse arrives and flies Lake away from destruction. There is dialogue about the horse being a guardian angel and that everyone on earth has one miracle within them blah, blah, blah. Many critics road Crowe hard for his Irish brogue but who cares when there is a white horse with Pegasus abilities powered by a subtle use of a Lisa Frank color scheme?
Before escaping from the city that never sleeps, the horse and Peter team up to steal from the homes of the well-to-do. Peter thinks they have enough loot but the horse is stubborn and nonverbally persuades Peter to invade another home. The home is occupied by the TB suffering Beverly Penn, daughter of a publishing magnate (played by Jessica Brown Findlay best known for dying young on Downton Abbey). You see although Beverly may only have anywhere from a week to a few months to live her whole family has left her behind and alone until her father can arrange special transport for her to their country home – no ma’am, no issues there. Her disease is manifested by her extreme body heat which requires her to sleep outside in a tent during the winter along with walking barefoot in the snow. When Peter meets Bev sparks fly and a romance is in full bloom.
Stuff happens which requires the couple to escape on the Lisa Frank horse. They go to her family’s mansion where Peter meets Beverly’s younger sister Willa and her father played by William Hurt. Peter saves the elder Penn’s life by fixing an errant furnace. Apparently Mr. Penn was willing to unnecessarily die in the house because his deceased wife had decorated it. It should be noted that his death would have resulted in making orphans out of his two daughters (okay, one is soon headed to the pearly gates) but the other is eight! Those parlor drapes Mrs. Penn picked out must have been something!
Beverly and Peter dress fancy and go to a dance. Afterwards they make sweet PG-13 love and she dies. Don’t come a-clapping if you see the tent a-flapping – unless you are an EMT because that might prove useful.
Peter is so crippled with grief that when he meets up again with Pearly he does not have the heart to fight and is easily thrown from the Brooklyn Bridge into the water below. However death does not claim him and he is saved by the Lisa Frank horse and they fly into 2014. Alas Peter has no memory of his life from back in the day, but he does seem to have an apartment and access to an endless supply of color chalk. He mopes around NYC wondering just who this red headed woman he is constantly drawing.
Peter is living his Groundhog Day existence not knowing his name but growing out his hair when he bumps into a little girl and her mother (Jennifer Connelly). Later he stumbles into a library and runs into the mother again and she helps him find information about the Penn family. Together they discover photos of Beverly and Peter at a ball. They decide to visit the headquarters of Penn Publishing for more answers when low and behold Peter runs into Beverly’s little sister Willa who if born in 1908 which makes her at least 105 years old in 2014.
Stylish Willa (and could Eva Marie Saint be anything but?) is telling an underling that she might have a chocolate malt for lunch when she spies her sister’s old fling. They embrace and neither is freaked out about seeing the other even though technically neither should be alive. Of course if the film had just labeled the time period 1983 instead of 2014 it would have made sense that Willa was still running her father’s company at the age of 75. Instead it is yet another WTF moment that audiences pause over.
In the end Willa says something about her sister and stars. Pearly confers with Lucifer (Will Smith) and becomes human. The red head turns out to be Connolly’s daughter who is dying from cancer but is saved (cured?) by Peter. There is a voice narrative from Beverly about how we all matter. After Peter kills Pearly in a final showdown he flies away with the Lisa Frank horse into the stars.
I speculate that this film was severely edited. I just don’t see this many well-known actors saying yes to a script that is so all over the place. It works on no level (not as a love story, piece of whimsy, or even a period piece) except as an unintentional comedy.
I don’t recommend Winter’s Tale even though currently it is being pushed hard on Time Warner’s On Demand service. Granted the trailer looks intriguing and I still stand by Russell Crowe as my celebrity crush, but don’t do it unless you are a fan of bad cinema and if so then Winter’s Tale is a must.