Film Review – Winter’s Tale
Sometimes movie adaptations of something popular comes along way too late. The excitement and momentum a given phenomenon has at times has to be capitalized upon while everyone still passionately cares. Admittedly, books or plays that are classics have a timeless quality that makes them evergreen. Think of how many Shakespeare, Dickens, or Doyle adaptations there have been over the years. However, other times they need to strike while the iron is hot. Remember that a good deal of The Da Vinci Code‘s success as a film had less to do with it’s strong content than it was the fact that the book was a publishing juggernaut which caused a short lived conspiracy fad. Consider the Phantom of the Opera musical film with Gerard Butler. That play was a massive hit in the 80s and early 90s. Yes, it still is a mainstay of the Broadway stage, but the event that was Phantom was definitely of that time. So when it took so long for the film version to finally arrive with none of the original cast members in tow, at the box office it was met with a resounding “meh”. No one cared anymore.
A prediction would suggest a similar outcome for the new film romance Winter’s Tale. Based on a hit book by Mark Helprin from the early 80s which was a massive publishing success, it has been so long since it was the book that “everyone” was reading that it’s devoted fans have likely let their passion diminish. What is left is a mediocre fantasy romance with middling CGI effects, unexplained plot contrivances, and conveniently sappy plot that might only appeal to dewy eyed 10 year old girls.
Colin Farrell plays a young man born in the late 1800s whose immigrant parents abandoned in New York presumably to avoid having him return home to Russia. In the 1920s he is a handsomely roguish thief who has been getting by on his street smarts. He is on the run from a gangster played by Russell Crowe. With his gravelly voice, armed with inept street thugs and unexplained facial scars, it turns out that this gangster is a demon from hell. Farrell’s character used to work for him, and demons don’t like people leaving their gang. (It’s never thoroughly explained why this demon has such an obsession with this particular mortal or why his betrayal was such a big deal). While trying to rob a rich mansion, Farrell walks in on a beautiful young woman who is slowly dying of consumption in that pristine unmarred way people get sick only in the movies. Played by Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey fame, she is a free spirit stuck alone in her house. She must sleep in a tent on the roof in the cold to keep her temperature low and stays isolated to avoid undue stressors that might kill her. Of course, the thief and the sick girl fall in love at first sight. The demon quickly figures out that the beautiful redheaded girl is the thief’s weakness, and conflict unfolds.
The thief is accompanied by a beautiful white horse that can fly with invisible wings and the implication that it is help from God. Apparently this human has a miracle to perform. This miracle keeps him alive and seemingly immortal. Late in the film the story jumps to present day where the thief is in an amnesiac fog. After a confrontation in the 1920s with the demon, he can’t remember who he is or from where he came. He has visions of a red headed girl, but that’s about it. By happenstance he bumps into Jennifer Connelly and her cancer stricken daughter. They quickly learn their fates are intertwined. And Crowe’s demon soon thereafter learns the thief is still alive.
Winter’s Tale is meant to be a fairy tale. With tragic, timeless loves, flying horses, angels and demons, and talks of human miracles, it desperately wants the audience to be swept up in romance. However, it doesn’t cast much of a spell. Firstly, too many logistical points are simply left unexplained: Farrell’s character has been alive almost 100 years with no memory. How does he eat? Where does he live? Did he pay any attention to WWII or Korea or Vietnam or Desert Storm or Iraq or Afghanistan in that time? How did he make it through the Great Depression? Was he even vaguely interested in the Civil Rights movement or the ERA or The Beatles or televisions or computers or anything that happened outside of meeting one woman in the 20th century? Also, Crowe is playing the world’s most inept demon. There are literally a half a dozen times where he could have been able to finish off his foe but doesn’t. Instead of shooting him, he suddenly feels he needs to get into a fist or knife fight. When he finally has him cornered, he head butts Farrell a couple of times and throws him in the water, but doesn’t double check to see that he’s dead. Meanwhile, what doesn this demon do in the impending 100 years while he hasn’t been looking for this one thief. Judging by his surroundings, he’s amassed some wealth. But it would be fun to see some of the mechanics of that.
This is a star studded cast. I’m always fooled into thinking that the presence of Colin Farrell means a movie is going to be good. Too much of his career runs counter to that idea though. Maybe he still has yet to find the proper role that will give him a Travolta-esque comeback. Jennifer Connelly is adequate as a concerned mother and curious reporter. She isn’t given a ton to do and feels underwritten. Findlay Brown paints a pretty picture as lonely young woman in the 20s who is full of life despite her illness (though ironically both Dan Stevens and she left Downton Abbey behind to run out and play similar characters on the big screen. Way to not get typecast). William Hurt as her father is far and away the best thing in the movie. In a few short scenes he is able to give his concerned widower character more subtlety and gravitas than the rest of the movie has all together.
There are a few other high wattage cameos that I won’t spoil here. The devil makes a surprise appearance played by a big Hollywood star as well as an old woman played by a former big Hollywood star. The oddest cameo is by Scott Grimes. While he’s not a huge name or anything, it’s kind of odd to see a recognizable face as a footman who has no lines and literally 2 seconds of screen time. It feels like a subplot was cut out of the film surrounding him.
I’m sure this property was resurrected to capitalize in some marketing meeting. The pitch could’ve been something like “It will be Downton Abbey meets Twilight. But instead of sparkly vampires we’ll have characters who recognize miracles that create glowy lights. Teenage girls will love it.” Well I didn’t.