“Winter’s Tale” is as real a fable and fairy tale as you can expect to see on screen. Based on the 1983 bestseller by Mark Helprin, the movie may disappoint fans of the book with its earnestness but in its own way conveys the miracle and mystery of life, veiled and unveiled.
“There is a world behind the world where we are all connected by light.” “Inside each of us is a miracle … time and distance can be conquered by love … the eternal conflict between good and evil is not fought with great armies but one life at a time.” If you are a connoisseur of aphorisms, “Winter’s Tale” (no connection to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale) is a goldmine. The real question is: Do the insights match the incidents? To a large extent they do, even if the serious sometimes descends into the sappy.
Peter Lake (Colin Farrell, whose flapping hairdo can be unnerving at times) literally floated ashore in New York harbor as a baby. He has been trained as a thief by the demonic Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Lake, however, has run afoul of Soames who is determined to terminate him. Just when he is about to meet his fate, an angelic white horse rescues Lake, leaving Pearly in uncontrollable rage.
Lake is a slave to his habit and continues to steal. Just before dawn one day, he is nudged by the magical horse to check out a palatial home. Upon entering it, he hears a girl playing Brahms. He is spellbound by her beauty and her free spirit. Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) is wasting away with tuberculosis and has only a few months to live. “Please don’t steal anything,” she asks Lake after being startled by him in the empty house. Her family had gone off to spend winter (it is after all, a Winter's Tale) in a mansion by a fabled lake.
So begins a mystical romance. But Pearly and his minions (The Short Tails) are not far behind. As he zeroes in on Lake and Penn, Horse rescues the pair and flies off (yes, it can fly) to the “Lake of the Coheeries” beyond the frozen Hudson. Beverly communes with the stars and names them to her enchanted lover: Castor, Pollux, Perseus, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Pleiades, Cassiopeia. She tells him she will become one of them after she dies. Lake will have none of it. Love can conquer all, even time and distance, he declares.
But there is no resisting death. Beverly succumbs to consumption, leaving a grief-stricken Lake to wonder about life’s meaning.
Soon thereafter, Pearly corners Lake and sends him into a watery grave.
Decades later, Lake emerges from the harbor with no memory of who he is and what he is supposed to do, other than to experience a gnawing feeling that “what we are meant for may yet be achieved.” He hadn't aged a bit (along with Pearly and gang) while the rest of the world had moved on.
The horse reappears. Another battle between good and evil ensues. This time it is Pearly Soames who is dispatched by Peter Lake with help from his winged guardian. Beverly shines as the brightest star in the winter sky, or so Lake believes. His task on earth is done and he is ready to unite with his beloved. The horse flies off into its heavenly pasture and something like that happens also to Lake.
It is easy to mock “Winter’s Tale” with its easy sentimentality but if you want to enjoy the movie, you have to let the mysterious and the wondrous take over your logical mind. You will be rewarded if you do. Then, every time you look up at the night sky, you may see the stars with fresh eyes. You may even feel a stirring of ancient and timeless love that transcends space and time. Just like Peter Lake.