In his adaptation of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Akiva Goldsman shows himself the true student of longtime collaborator Ron Howard, whom he has for many years served as principal screenwriter. What unites these two men is evidently a shared attraction to stories driven more by emotional force than any question of great moral interest. Any universe that is not solidly black and white escapes the Howard/Goldsman duo’s powers of comprehension. This weakness is not without its complement of strength; few, if any, directors share Howard’s knack for choosing foolproof crowdpleaser material of the stand up and cheer variety. On the other hand, most of his heroes are weighted with an unshakeable burden of likeable dullness (Tom Hanks in The DaVinci Code, Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man). Goldsman reveals that he has unfortunately not divested himself of the Howardian vice in this his first directorial feature, which stars Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and Jessica Brown Findlay, who will be familiar to viewers of PBS’s Downton Abbey as that show’s Lady Sybil Crawley.
Winter’s Tale tells the story of Peter Lake (Farrell) the orphaned son of European immigrants and a safecracker extraordinaire. The film’s opening scenes find him in turn-of-the-century New York on the run from sadistic local crime capo Pearly Soames (Crowe). Lake is saved by a magical white horse from Soames’ gang of thugs, all of whom are for some reason dressed as the subject of Rene Magritte’s “Le fils de l’homme.” Lake and the providential quadruped become companions, and at the end of a successful night of thievery in a wealthy neighborhood, Lake breaks into the house of Beverly Penn (Brown Findlay), the consumptive daughter of a newspaper baron. Peter and Beverly fall in love too quickly for comfort, and it is not long before she is introducing him to her father (William Hurt, making the most of a well-written small role). Soames, however, has gotten wind of the couple’s incipient romance, and decides that it is for the greater good of chaos that the lovers should be destroyed. We are never given any real reason why, other than the fact that it is Soames (quite literally) diabolical duty to see to it that miracles, including earthly love, should not happen. Here the film’s cracks begin to grow visible, and we find ourselves in a jungle of half-digested mythopoetic plot devises inspired by everything from Snow White to the legend of the Wandering Jew. What is worse, we are introduced to Satan as played by Will Smith, and the puns irresistibly begin to crop up in the viewer’s mind (Fresh Prince of Darkness. After Earth : Hell). Smith acquits himself in his role much like a mildly aggravated CEO, which is, I suppose, an interpretation not previously attempted, for reasons now perhaps made more clear.
If Winter’s Tale does not reach the dramatic heights to which it aspires, it is not because it is incurably handicapped by its occasional corniness (strangely, none of the other Howard/Goldsman efforts were either), but by its too flimsy metaphysics. The universe in which this story lives is half-pantheist and half-Christian, and though it is not too great a challenge to accept it on its own terms, the exact reason why Crowe’s demon should have nothing better to do across the centuries than attempt to capsize star-crossed love remains unclear, and the drama does not ever really live. Individual scenes and moments keep our attention : witness the brief interview between Farrell and Hurt where Hurt examines Farrell as potential son-in-law material and briefly argues with him over the exact pronunciation of the word claret. Here the liveliness of Helprin’s novel returns for a moment, and the dialogue rises to a proper crackle. The fantasy version of New York holds the eye with its cold beauty and is similarly worthy of its source material. Of most of the film’s other elements we feel that a more mature interpretation of the novel would have demanded a more thoughtful director. Goldsman might easily have done worse on his first time at the director’s helm, but then so many might easily have done much better.