Day 279: Winter's Tale

"I was an orphan, orphans don't have vanity. I'm not quite sure why, but one needs parents to be vain."
Mark Helprin's dense, nearly 700-page 1983 novel Winter's Tale hardly seems like the kind of tome that can be easily translated into a two-hour film without being divested of most of its meaning. It spans nearly a hundred years and deals with miracles, reincarnation, good vs. evil, and everything in between, including a flying horse and a princess bed. It seemed like pure folly for Academy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Batman & Robin) to even attempt to adapt it, let alone choose it for his directorial debut, but nevertheless, here we are.
So could Winter's Tale rise above the insurmountable odds stacked against it, or would it succumb to its own unique brand of un-adaptability? Read on to find out...
Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a thief living in early Twentieth Century New York City. We meet him as he's attempting to outrun a band of literally black-hatted villains that mean to kill him, led by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), when he encounters a white horse that carries him away from danger. Peter attempts to head out of town to avoid any further danger, but the horse has other designs and brings him to a house owned by the wealthy Isaac Penn (William Hurt), whose daughter Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) is dying of consumption and must remain in frigid temperatures to survive. Peter decides to rob the house as it is being vacated by the family for a trip north, but they have left Beverly behind. Needless to say when Peter and Beverly encounter one another, it is love at first sight.
We soon learn that Soames is some sort of demon that is seeking to destroy Peter due to a power that he possesses, and which he fears he may use to rescue the dying girl. Peter and Beverly escape Soames and his men and flee to her father's vacation home. Here Peter makes his intentions known to Isaac, who ultimately fears his daughter's imminent death, but gives his reluctant blessing when Peter saves the house from blowing up. Unable to save Beverly before she dies, Peter is soon confronted by Soames, and is left for dead, but finds himself alive again in the present day, uncertain of who he is and what helped him survive into the new century. 
To say that Winter's Tale is a mess of a film is an understatement. It tries to walk a tightrope between being bug-nuts insane and devastatingly romantic, and manages to do neither successfully. While the film opens with a narration from Findlay about believing in magic against all of your own better judgment, the scenarios it presents are so insane, they may as well have asked you to take your stupid pills while they were at it. The film is absurd, and commits wholly to its own absurdity, but it gives one the distinct feeling that it more than likely worked better on the page where one can conjure up unbelievable flights of fancy without risking the utter stupidity of seeing a horse, that's really a dog, fly or Russell Crowe head butting a man to death. The film opens with Lake's parents placing their infant son into a model ship and dropping him into the Atlantic Ocean, off the side of a boat headed back to Europe, and it only gets more stultifying from there.
A large part of me wants to not spoil the details of the film for fear that you read the previous paragraph and still somehow managed to convince yourself this is a film you want to see. The film's biggest issue (as if to suggest there's only one) is its own mythology, which is hopelessly convoluted and borrows liberally from both the Judeo-Christian notion of angels, demons, and miracles, as well as a grab bag of any other of a half-dozen mythological ideologies from Hinduism to Taoism. It's the kind of film where they introduce the devil, or Judge as he's known here, reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, and then have him expound upon the notion that time is not a fixed concept. It will make your head hurt if you try to think about it for more than a nanosecond. In a 700-page novel, it probably works better, as readers do not mind lengthy bouts of exposition, but on film, it's rendered baffling.
When the film jumps to present day, it gets even worse. It begins to drag on and on, seeming as if there's no end in sight, and anyone that's seen at least one trailer for the film (set interestingly to the song "Wings" by Birdy, which was also used in the trailers for Labor Day) will know that the drawing Peter obsesses over has a schmaltzy connection to a woman (Jennifer Connolly) and her dying daughter (Ripley Sobo) that he just happens to encounter in the present day. I would be remiss if I didn't mention one last thing concerning the film's timeline: Updating it to present day rather than the early 80s setting of the book makes a minor character's existence 100 years in the future borderline impossible, particularly considering this character's vocation. 
Cursed with not one, but two of the worst looking haircuts of his career, Colin Farrell suffers once more from being dragged down by the stupidity of the film he's headlining. Farrell can be good when given good material (see his two collaborations with Martin McDonagh), but he's never been an actor that can rise above mediocre material, and he's simply crushed under the weight of bad material. Findlay and Hurt do the most they can with this pap, but similarly fall victim to its inanity. Connelly should be ashamed for accepting the role she did, as her character is a terribly written and horribly conceived stereotype of a mother who just lets a complete stranger take her sick daughter on a flying horse to be cured of a terminal illness. The entire subplot concerning her character is a nightmare of tragic and misguided wish fulfillment for any parent that has had to suffer the loss of a child to disease, and is a downright shameful plot device.
Which brings us to our old friend Russell Crowe. Crowe is an interesting actor to watch, as he delights in chewing scenery, but as we learned in Les Miserables, when it comes to one note characters, he's simply not the man for the job. A scene where he plays drunk renders his every utterance unintelligible, and the poorly written character he's playing does him no favors. I still hold out hope for his upcoming collaboration with Darren Aronofsky as Noah, but he's slowly burning up every ounce of goodwill I still have for him. Thankfully the film is competently made and Goldsman isn't half as bad a director as he is a writer. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel makes it a nice enough film to look at, and both the production and costume design make for a visually interesting film, but it's the cinematic equivalent of a dumb blonde. 
If you're interested in watching Colin Farrell, with a Moe Howard haircut, ride a magic horse through the centuries, and you don't mind being pandered to and having your common sense insulted, Winter's Tale is your best bet in theaters at the moment. If the story interests you, read the book, but for the love of all that's holy, do not waste your hard earned money on this film. Thank goodness we live in an age where celluloid no longer has to be wasted on films like this, but all the talent involved makes me wonder if this is really the film all of these people signed on for. Groupthink has led to far worse efforts than this (Battlefield Earth), but this is a scurrilous, disparaging film with little to recommend outside of some nice words for the craftsmen involved in its creation. Hollywood can do better than this, and so can you.

GO Rating: 1/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]