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'Winter's Tale': Intriguing yet unfinished

Winter's Tale

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Not really sure what happened here. I have well-reasoned theories, but in the end it doesn't matter. "Winter’s Tale" graces us with dramatic romantic fantasy at its best, courtesy of a sumptuous and beautiful production, but it falters completely in the third act, leaving us with question rather than satisfaction.

Listo and Colin Farrell ~ the two best parts of Winter's Tale
Listo and Colin Farrell ~ the two best parts of Winter's TaleWarner Bros.

Here we meet one Peter Lake (Colin Farrell in a superb performance), orphaned as an infant and now a cog in the New York City 1915 machine of demonic local crime boss Pearly Soames (ably portrayed by a miscast Russell Crowe). Peter and Pearly have fallen out, and as Peter conducts one last burglary before bugging out of town, he suddenly encounters Beverly Penn, the terminally ill young lady of the house (Jessica Brown Findlay). And it’s love at first sight.

Thus commence the quests: to somehow save the lady love, to live fully the life left, to quash the hope of those who would insist on holding it.

The first half works wondrously. Based on the widely beloved novel by Mark Helprin, it brings us a world behind the world we see, the good and the evil, the devoted and the hateful. It’s a world revealed by light, a light only a few with a certain sense can see, and it transforms daily existence as surely as the love and hate, the good and evil, that drives it. It’s mysterious and surprising, and we accept it without question, as does Peter.

As with "Water for Elephants", we sense a depth not present onscreen, and as there, the film works anyway; we feel not a sense of being left out, but rather of being granted access into something special. Into its dazzling array of layers: of massive Manhattan architecture, of snow and of light and of reflection; of sharp repartee as characters take measure of one another; of willingness to embrace fully the moment that presents itself out of nowhere, for it may never come again, and Now is all there is.

From all this emerges tremendous love and tremendous menace, and we fall in love with Peter and Beverly as completely as they fall in love with each other, embracing her family the way they came to embrace Peter.

But then the pivotal inevitable occurs (come on, you know what it is), and things fall completely to pieces. Not just for Peter, but for the film itself and us along with it. We’re told in various ways that his newfound quest was his quest all along, only to be told in so many words that no one thing is more important than another. Um, okay… then why the quest again? We hear a character say, “We went for the wrong one” and commence to pursue the right one (I won’t spoil what it is), never to be told what the heck difference it would've made. Etc., etc., etc....

I haven’t read the book, but the intriguing nature of the screenplay piqued my interest, and come to find out it’s praised as containing some of the most captivating wordsmithing and storytelling to come along in some time, and was named alongside two of my favorite novels, one of which ties for all time favorite ("The Stand" and "The Brothers Karamazov", tied with "Red Dragon"). I read an excerpt and tend to trust those sentiments. Trouble is, much of what’s referenced never even happens in the movie, and what’s in the movie, isn't referenced by the fans.

And therein, says the Bard, lies the rub. Speaking of "The Brothers Karamazov" and "Red Dragon", we all know what happened there, need I say more. (Okay I’ll say more: both "The Brothers K" and "Manhunter" were utter maimed disasters of the first order; the DeLaurentis’ made it up to us with a proper retelling of "Red Dragon" two decades later, and I’m hoping the makers of the most recent "Anna Karenina" feel so inspired. But onward.)

I get the feeling that fans of the book will be either gloriously happy or grievously disappointed; they’ll be able to fill in the blanks, or despair at the shadow their beloved tale has become. For the rest of us, the third act just disintegrates into a sequence so rushed that expositive dialogue and narration have to explain what’s happening. But by this point we just don't care.

The film simply feels somehow miscarried. Case in point: Hans Zimmer started the score, and it’s lovely; he then had to leave the project early to finish "12 Years a Slave", and so passed the baton to a very able colleague. Still a nice score, but somehow didn't quite feel “itself,” which of course it couldn't. And again the casting: great with the leads and William Hurt, faltered a bit with Crowe, and failed miserably with Will Smith. (Not the performances, mind you, the casting. Different.And by the way ~ Scorsese ultimately passed, reportedly calling it "unfilmable"; with all due respect to Mr. Scorsese, and he may have been right here, far be it from me to comment ~ but "Perfume" was said to be "unfilmable", and Tom Tykwer hit a home run bases loaded. Just saying.)

It’s too bad, because "Winter’s Tale" is otherwise a gorgeous, well-performed outing. I recommend it as far as those things go, and to those seeking a gentle, romantic Valentine’s Day option. Or if you’re into Colin Farrell, you can’t go wrong there.

Not really sure what happened here. Could have been any of several things not really worth pursuing any longer.

But I’m now sure interested in reading the book.

Story: When a thief on the run from his angered boss encounters the young woman of the house he's burgling, the lives of all three become intertwined in ways that transcend time itself.

Genre: Romance, Fantasy

Starring: Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Will Smith, Eva Marie Saint, Jennifer Connelly

Directed by: Akiva Goldsman

MPAA: PG-13

Running time: 118

Houston release date: February 14, 2014

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Feb 11 2014 at the Edwards Marq*E theater in Houston TX

Non-spoiling spoiler below:

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The horse is not harmed. (Mercy...)