Usually, one can clump bad films into two categories. The first are those with stories and characters so dull and lifeless that audience interest wanes instantly. The second are incomprehensibly silly tales that can only work if one embraces their kitschy or campy qualities. Winter’s Tale, the howlingly silly and perplexing debut feature of Oscar-winning scribe Akiva Goldsman, holds the rare distinction of being a third kind of awful. It blends these two aforementioned tomes of terrible cinema together into something almost unwatchable.
Winter’s Tale is adapted from Mark Helprin’s literary fantasy, which runs close to 700 pages and was a massive hit in the mid-1980s. Years ago, Martin Scorsese was going to direct a version of Helprin’s novel but even he found it unreleasable. Clearly, this project needed a director who could capture Helprin’s magical realism in an enchanting way. Instead, it comes from the man lucky enough to pen two good films starring Russell Crowe (Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind) and unlucky enough to have his name attached to writing both of Joel Schumacher’s reviled Batman flicks. Under Goldsman’s clunky writing and amateurish direction, this Winter’s Tale is certainly one of our discontent.
The film begins by jumping back and forth between modern-day New York City and 1895, when a Russian family arrives at Ellis Island. The young married couple, traveling with an infant, is forced to turn back to Europe due to the husband’s illness. At sea, the man decides to set his baby adrift in a model sailboat for the New York Harbor. 21 years later, the child with a Russian heritage and New York upbringing is all grown up and looks a lot like a 37-year-old Colin Farrell, unexplainably sticking with his Irish accent.
Farrell plays Peter Lake, a thief and former gang member. The leader of his old crew, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), wants Peter dead for some misdeeds that do not get much of an explanation. In an early confrontation with Pearly’s gang, Peter encounters a snowy white horse, Athansor, who has the miraculous, Pegasus-like ability to form wings and fly. The horse leads Peter to the lavish home of a wealthy newspaper magnate, Isaac Penn (William Hurt) and his beautiful daughter, Beverly (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay). Lake attempts to rob the estate but Beverly’s beauty robs him of words instead. The two slowly begin to fall for each other, although time is of the essence: Beverly is ill with tuberculosis while Pearly is on the hunt to murder Peter.
Filled with poorly explained magical hokum and Russell Crowe’s miserable attempts at making a gruff Irish accent credible, Winter’s Tale is almost a total disaster. The first major issue is how unconvincing the magical realism is. To tell a story with fantastical elements successfully, a writer must introduce us to the rules and principles of this embellished story world, while trying not to overload the viewer with new concepts or ideas. Goldsman’s script, however, does not explain the logistics of this mythical universe, hoping the audience will figure out how it all works on its own.
Unfortunately, without a grasp of how the magical and miraculous aspects blend with the romance in an immigrant-filled New York City in 1916 – and its subsequent jump to the modern day – the supernatural fantasy moments, when they appear, become distracting instead of immersive. When Athansor first glides off into the sky with Peter and Beverly on her back, the reaction is not wonder at the horse’s flight but bewilderment, since the viewer is so unaccustomed to the fantastical rhythms of this fiction. With a dopey sense of logic, accompanied by lackluster CGI and cloying, twinkly musical score, Winter’s Tale never takes off into the dreamy myriad of romance and fantasy that Goldsman aims for.
The rookie filmmaker does not just struggle when it comes to whittling down a massive novel into a streamlined story, resistant to explain the fantasy elements in an absorbing way. Goldsman also coaxes very little emotion from his supporting cast, many of whom look like they walked in from off the street, grabbed whatever was on the wardrobe rack and gave a weak effort to memorize their lines before deciding to read their part off cue cards pasted just below the camera. William Hurt is especially wooden as Beverly’s charmless dad. Jennifer Connelly looks just as tired as a journalist who meets Peter in modern-day New York. (I would like to elaborate further as to why Peter appears nearly 100 years after the initial events of the story in contemporary New York, as a wandering amnesiac with wavy rock star hair, who has not aged a day and draws images of his past with chalk on Central Park sidewalks. However, your guess is likely as good as mine.)
Meanwhile, Russell Crowe continues to prove that he is this generation’s Marlon Brando – except here, he descends to the actor’s Island of Dr. Moreau stage. As Pearly, Crowe is a snarling fool with a thick, almost indecipherable Irish accent. The Oscar-winner is laughable as the villain, grinding his teeth and glaring at the characters without evoking a sprinkle of menace. He thrives on “blackening souls and crushing miracles” but his characterization is thin and we never come to learn the root of his character’s motivations. We also understand little about Pearly’s conflicted relationship with Lucifer (played by a woefully miscast Will Smith, draped in street clothes and shiny earrings, and whose agent did the good deed of removing the actor from the film’s promotional campaign).
There are also some bizarre continuity and story errors that further indicate that an amateur is working behind the camera. Pearly and Peter have a tough, bone-cracking fight near the end but there is almost not a drop of blood in sight. Meanwhile, there is some obvious use of a Digital Intermediate for scenes that take place at nighttime but were clearly filmed during the day.
Miraculously, the film is not a total disaster. Both Farrell and Findley rise above the dignity of their tepid, one-note romance and find a spark of chemistry that helps to crackle some of the more wooden exchanges of dialogue. She is radiant and filled with a purity that works with the character, while he – coming off a superb turn in Saving Mr. Banks – has the chops to make the more poignant moments of the film work. Their sex scene, meanwhile, is as chaste and uncomfortably bland as they come.
Moving disarmingly between sappy romance and campy supernatural fantasy, Winter’s Tale is a mess. Two good performances save it from rotting with Will Smith’s rock star Lucifer in the pits of cinematic hell, but without an authentic fantasy hook to enchant or engage the audience, the film is confounding and confusing. You do not quite watch Winter’s Tale, but gape at it, incredulous from its wild tonal shifts, bizarre characters and incomprehensible fantasy elements.
Lifeless, laughable and lame, Winter’s Tale is set to frustrate fans of Mark Helprin’s 1983 fantasy novel and flummox everybody else.