Judge Clark Douglas' guardian angel is a flying lizard.
This is not a true story. This is true love.
"Give me a chance and you'll melt all the snow in the world."
Facts of the Case
The year is 1916, and Peter Lake (Colin Farrell, In Bruges) is a thief who has spent much of his life under the tutelage of gangster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, The Insider). When Peter decides to leave the gang, Pearly gets angry and begins hunting Peter down. Making matters more complicated: Pearly is not merely a gangster, but an ancient demon posing as a human. Surprisingly, Peter manages to make an escape thanks to the surprise appearance of a magical white horse. Peter plans to head south for a while and return when the search for him has cooled down, but he decides to rob one more lavish mansion before he leaves. As luck would have it, the mansion he chooses is the home of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey), a young woman dying of consumption. Beverly catches Peter in the middle of his thievery, but chooses to befriend him rather than turn him to the police. Peter knows that he is capable of performing one miracle over the course of his life, and over time he becomes convinced that his miracle involves healing Beverly. Alas, Pearly is determined to do whatever it takes to stop that from happening.
If you read the above plot description and felt like you might have a difficult time suspending your disbelief for such a story, believe me, you'll want to stay far away from Winter's Tale. I can't reveal the most outlandish things the film does as it would require me to spoil major plot developments, but suffice it to say that this movie is certifiably bonkers. Yes, I realize it's a romantic fantasy and that it's supposed to work on an emotional level rather than a logical one. Even so, some of the decisions made are just baffling. To the film's credit, director Akiva Goldsman (making his debut after writing a host of middling blockbusters over the course of the past couple of decades) plays everything with absolutely sincerity, but that sincerity ultimately makes the clunky dialogue and ludicrous plotting all the more howl-inducing.
Part of the problem is that the film doesn't really attempt to sell or explain the magical universe in which it takes place, but merely throws a lot of larger-than-life elements at us and expects us to accept them as they appear. Angels and demons really exist and take human/animal form? Okay. Flying horses are a thing? Okay. Guys can just leap forward in time if their purpose in life hasn't yet been fulfilled? Okay. There are a lot of crazy rules, but the rulebook remains hidden. We begin the film with a raised eyebrow and are never given sufficient reason to lower it. By the time the movie reaches its startling transition point (a little over halfway through), it will have lost the vast majority of its viewers to unintended laughter (sadly, this will likely occur during a moment which is intended to be tragic). The film is based on a novel by Mark Helprin, which I haven't read but I'm told is a lovely, engaging thing. Clearly something must have been lost in translation (simply looking at a basic plot description of the novel, it's clear that a lot has been changed) because the cinematic version is a muddled mess.
This is a bad movie, but it's the sort of bad movie they don't really make anymore. The heartfelt, wooden dialogue feels like something out of a terrible '50s romance. That old-fashioned artifice applies to the production design, too. Goldsman has clearly spent a lot of money attempting to create a world which looks convincingly like New York circa 1916, but he hasn't got the directorial chops to really make that world feel alive or visually compelling. The script strains for emotional impact time and time again, leaning heavily on a score (co-penned by Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams) which constantly tugs on the heartstrings without ever actually going anywhere.
The film boasts a lot of strong, distinctive actors, but it doesn't know how to use most of them effectively. Colin Farrell has never been particularly interesting as a simple, heroic protagonist—it's just not a mode that suits his talents—and that's the case once again here. Jessica Brown Findlay has been exceptional on Downton Abbey, but in this project she's reduced to playing the perpetually-smiling, terminally ill girl who somehow gets more beautiful as her death grows nearer (call it Love Story syndrome). Russell Crowe is one of our best actors, but he's woefully miscast as the Irish demon—his accent is all over the place and he rarely gets anything interesting to do. Will Smith is even more miscast as The Devil (!), mostly because the film makes the bizarre decision to go back and forth between giving Smith a deep, computer-enhanced voice and letting him use his normal speaking voice. It also doesn't help that Smith is dressed as if he's getting ready to film Bad Boys 3. The best scene in the film is one involving William Hurt (A History of Violence) as Beverly's father, who demands that Peter reveal his true intentions with efficiency, clarity and honesty. It's a sharp, well-written, emotionally involving scene, and Hurt brings real dramatic power to it. After that, Hurt sticks around, but the film has no idea what to do with him. Jennifer Connelly (Dark City) turns up in the second half of the film, but spends most of her time looking as if she has no idea what she's supposed to be doing. Connelly is a great actress; there's no reason whatsoever she should be playing a role this thankless.
Winter's Tale (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/2.40:1 transfer which highlights the film's charming New York locations. Though Goldsman doesn't have much visual style to offer, the level of detail is certainly pristine throughout. The gentle color palette is consistently appealing, and depth is strong throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is exceptional, too, doing a fine job of blending the busy sound design with the lush score and the dialogue. A couple of battle sequences will stir up a bit of chaos in your home theater, but otherwise this isn't a particularly loud film. Supplements include two featurettes ("Winter's Tale: A Timeless Love" and "Characters of Good and Evil"), some deleted scenes, a DVD copy and a digital copy.
Winter's Tale is a good-hearted movie, but also a big mushy mess of a showcase for Akiva Goldsman's worst instincts. An ambitious failure perhaps, but definitely a failure.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Deleted Scenes
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