A New York Winter’s Tale
I was intrigued to see Winter’s Tale, as it was titled in the US (probably in Britain we’d have thought it was the Sir Ken’s next Shakespeare adaptation), despite the lack of esteem in which I hold screenwriter (and here debut director) Akiva Goldsman. Magical realism is a deceptively difficult fish to fry, even though it’s an increasingly popular dish; perhaps one for whom Mark Helprin’s novel had become a passion project could muster the goods to pull off it off. Goldsman couldn’t, as it turns out, but, despite its myriad flaws, and at times borderline perverse desire to test the patience of its audience, I can’t actually bring myself to dislike the preposterously garbled mess that is A New York Winter’s Tale.
The failure of the movie rests squarely on Goldsman’s shoulders as writer-director-producer. But, for all his reaching beyond his grasp (a sign of vanity or just plain denseness?), it is Goldsman observing his better-known craft, that of the Oscar winning screenwriter of Batman and Robin (although he won for A Beautiful Mind, somehow), who comes up short. His first outing in the director’s chair actually isn’t horrible (he did some groundwork on episodes of Fringe), although it may be his DP Caleb Deschanel who should really be congratulated on making Winter’s Tale as picturesquely frosty and inviting as it is.
Is this the utter disaster that’s been made out? No, that’s been exaggerated. Like many a costly flop, there are more than enough good ideas and elements in Winter’s Tale. Probably too many. That Goldsman is unable to pull them all together successfully into an affecting love story and an affirmation of life’s higher meaning – admittedly a tall order, and one asking for ridicule when the foot is put even slightly wrong – doesn’t mean it’s without some merit.
If you’re looking for logic or grounding, you’re watching the wrong movie, however. Winter’s Tale is consistently incoherent. The novel by Mark Helprin is nigh on 1,000 pages, and there’s an awareness throughout that Goldsman hasn’t allowed himself enough space to breathe and develop his tale, to allow us to get into the heads of the characters and their world. The unanswered questions regarding the supernatural element, the battle between good and evil, aren’t really the problem. Goldsman is reaching for the poetic, and too often he ends up merely perfunctory. Characters relate to each other elliptically, the (vast) passage of time is never properly bedded in, and the lack of finesse in handling the romantic and treaclier elements mean the picture is unable to develop satisfyingly.
This kind of material is in danger of being heavy-handed if it isn’t played out with a deftness and lightness of touch. Goldsman has honed his screenplay to focus on Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) and his combative relationship with demon gangster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Crucial to this, and the heart of the film, is Peter falling hook, line, and sinker for rich girl Beverly Penn (Jessica Findlay Brown), who is dying from consumption, alas. This passage is set in 1916, but we have already seen him in the present day, and witnessed the passage of Peter to New York as a babe, carried to shore in a makeshift boat when his consumptive (there’s a lot of it about) parents are refused entry to the city.
Right there is the first leap Goldsman asks us to make, attempting to allude to the symbolic (Moses) rather than the logical (what parents in their right minds – even sickly ones – would cast their precious bairn to the mercy of the currents?) From here, Farrell’s feckless thief turns up the charm as he woos Beverly and meets a very special horse. It’s a tragic love story, of course, so he ends up thrown off a bridge and fishes up in 2014 (he doesn’t really, but Goldsman slightly bungles the execution).
Goldsman called in a great many favours to get this made, hence the illustrious presence of Crowe, Will Smith, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt. He should have known Winter’s Tale was doomed however, as box office kiss of death Farrell is in the lead role. He’s reliable, doing his earnest innocent thing, with great curtains of hair he has to push back constantly. Farrell is a decent actor, but he doesn’t have many tricks to fall back on if he isn’t supported by good writing (see Martin McDonagh’s films for him at his best). The romance is reasonable as far as the chemistry of the leads is concerned, but Findlay is only saved from the ripest of dialogue by the accentuation of her cut glass delivery. There’s so much dodgy bardish philosophising spewing from her pretty mouth, you might mistakenly think Chris Carter had camped out in Goldsman’s back garden, whispering softly through the night as he punched at his keyboard.
Hurt is as stoic and pained as he’s ever been, but Crowe delivers a performance to be relished for all the wrong reasons. Apoplectically Oirish, his head bursting from his heaving shoulders, Crowe has the intense demeanour of an angry hardboiled egg. He’s at his most inadvertently amusing when he shows his demon face or unsuccessfully explains why he hates Peter so. His performance makes no concessions to subtlety, so it comes as no surprise that the demon offers a grudging paean to the perseverance of mortals (“We’re losing, Lucifer. One bright star at a time, we’re losing”).
We’re given little inkling of the history between Pearly and Peter (apparently, he was the son Pearly never had), and, while I can accept the “Because that’s the way it is” realm of angels and demons, the latter attempting to stop humans from using their given miracle, Goldsman is only ever able to half manoeuvre this cosmic interplay into a relatable form. Most likely this is an unsurmountable difficulty of the source material; what’s good in one’s head (or on the page) can be risible on screen.
There are clearly rules about what Pearly can and cannot do, hence his visit to Lucifer himself (Smith). Perhaps Smith thought this was his chance to De Niro the devil? I somehow doubt it. He has two scenes, and Big Willie Style looks like he’s just visited the local record store and couldn’t even be arsed to go via the costume department en route to the set. I know, Lucifer has no appreciation of time, which is why he’s reading A Brief History… and wearing the same Hendrix t-shirt in 1916 and 2014, but it looks lazy. Will isn’t bringing his best either, adopting an ungainly poise for Lucifer in pissed mode and carrying no sense of threat. Perhaps as this was a favour, and he wasn’t getting paid much, he didn’t put much into it. But Smith’s mere presence is yet another part of a picture I can’t help but find fascinatingly botched (I did like him turning out the solitary light bulb whenever he’s left alone).
Beverly, for instance, suffers from the most romantically appealing terminal illness you ever did see. Why, she even pegs it in a dreamy fashion. None of this nasty coughing up blood and worse. Such pleasant perishing enables her to plunge into lovingly lit pools of water and tread barefoot through the snow. It really is the most delightful disease!
Then there’s poor old Graham Greene, trotted out as the obligatory magical Native American for some sage advice. Or the photofit Pearly sends his men to hunt the city for Beverly (someone, somehow, manages to matches her from a drawing of the back of her head). And the earnest conversation between Peter and Hurt’s Pappa Penn (‘Can’t I steal just one life?’ implores poor pickled Peter). And the first thing Beverly says to Peter (“I’ve never been kissed on the mouth”) like she’s about to send him some nude selfies. There’s even a moment where Crowe has to utter, “Shit happens”, and it’s as graceless as the picture gets.
I’m pleased to at least give unqualified praise for one performance in Winter’s Tale. Listo the horse is absolutely magnificent as The Horse. Indeed, in most of these scenes Goldsman manages to muster a sensibility that the overdone but underprepared romance cannot. The Horse is a hit as Peter’s wise prodding confidante, and the sweeping effects when he takes flight actually do uplift (I liked the subtler choice for equine wings). True, the scene where Peter rescues Beverly from Pearly on his mighty mount ought to be uplifting rather than the huge slice of poorly paced cheese it is, but it would be a hard heart that doesn’t inwardly cheer every time Listo canters on scene left.
The century-spanning tale really crumbles when it comes to translating this time shift. Obviously Goldsman, to tell the tale in truncated form, is going to have to use significant shorthand, but there’s too much vagueness where there needs to be substance. In his rush to cut to the chase, the fascinating idea of a man who is surprisingly not a MacCleod of the clan MacCleod is brushed over and leaves us scratching out heads. Peter’s lived a hundred years with amnesia, fixing stuff (it’s that “sympathy for complex systems”) and drawing the same red-haired portrait over and over again? This may as well be Doctor Who‘s Stephen Moffat writing Rory’s millennium of guarding his beloved Amy as a punchline. Because Goldsman is in a hurry, no sooner have we been told Peter has forgotten than he’s remembered. There’s no build up, or lull, or sureness of pace. There’s no depth or resonance to his experience.
Aside from Connelly looking impossibly spindly, and yet another precocious child, the present-day passage finds Eve Marie Saint, looking very chipper at ninety, playing a 108-year-old (“A bed of wishes, made 100 years ago by a little girl who’s now an old woman”; yes, the attempts at lyricism are mostly that indigestible). It’s quite a nice idea that the miracle that was believe to be necessary for one person is really needed for another, but Goldsman’s confined canvas prevents him from balancing his elements in relation to each other.
I don’t think an adult fairy-tale is necessarily a doomed endeavour, but it requires a guiding hand with greater flair and a surer grip. I suspect someone like Clive Barker could juggle those elements. To be fair to Goldsman, who sledgehammered the world of John Nash into trite oblivion in A Beautiful Mind, he doesn’t do understated, so it’s a wonder the tone his picture is fairly even, in a very sub-Wim Wenders, and even sub-City of Angels, fashion. Winter’s Tale isn’t as overly sentimental as one might expect, but it isn’t overly romantic either and it really wants to be.
I do look forward to seeing difficult or maligned movies, the bombs studios would rather bury and write off. And often I am liable to find positives in them, from 47 Ronin or Southland Tales. I’m sure I’ve found more here, and been more receptive than most (less than Neil Gaiman, though), but there’s no denying A New York Winter’s Tale’s deficiencies. The key problem is that it needs at very least to translate the intended soaring spirit, the romance of all things connected by light and the miraculous, and a universe that loves everyone equally (and why not; if one is going to make this kind of piece, one may as well cross the threshold cynicism-free). So it’s a fairly fundamental failing that these themes are erratic at best, that the score by Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams does most of the heavy lifting. And yet there’s also a lot to enjoy, for what it could have been, and for its misjudgements, from Crowe’s blarney balderdash to Smith having no idea what the hell he’s doing. The one area Goldsman nails is the horse, though. Listo might be the best Hollywood horse since Mr Ed.