Film Review: Winter's Tale

It's tough to pull off the writing-producing-directing trifecta when your film features a time-traveling flying horse moonlighting as matchmaker.

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, makes his directorial debut with Winter’s Tale, adapted from Mark Helprin’s 1983 epic. The sprawling novel, set in a mythical Manhattan as grand and gritty as any Gotham ever imagined, takes place over the course of the 20th century, although time bends and characters are ageless. History is reimagined through the prism of magical realism—a flying white horse has a big neigh in how events unfold—and the narrative refracts from adventure yarn, to love story, to philosophical meditation and back again. The book would be difficult, and extraordinarily expensive, to condense into a mini-series, let alone a two-hour movie.

Goldsman assembled an accomplished cast and crew for his film, which captures the incongruous warmth of the preternatural winters described in the novel. His CGI artists lyrically, almost painterly, recreate New York circa 1900, working with a modest budget reported to be under $50 million. Colin Farrell, who plays the thief Peter Lake, is older than the twenty-something hero of the story, but he suits the role and looks good next to Jessica Brown Findlay, borrowed from “Downton Abbey” to play Beverly Penn, the ethereal consumptive who steals Peter’s heart. Russell Crowe camps it up as Pearly Soames, the menacing but bespoken demon who has sworn to destroy Peter for quitting his gang and, what’s worse, for discovering his conscience.

Unfortunately, the writer-producer-director had no one to curb his enthusiasm, to borrow a phrase, for a project he has been laboring to realize for three decades. “Mark’s book is big, close to 800 pages,” Goldsman has said, “and no screenplay could contain every element, so I worked on it, distilling from it what resonated with me the most.” He managed to fit Winter’s Tale’s transcendent themes into the screenplay—the “unmistakable splendor” of divine justice (call it celestial justice if divine seems too godly); the perseverance and triumph of “uncorruptible” virtue; the interconnectedness and the luminosity of being—but mostly, Goldsman renders down the novel to the fleeting yet eternal romance between Peter and Beverly. All good, one supposes, because relatively few moviegoers will have read Helprin’s opus. Yet not so much, either, because Goldsman tends, like many successful filmmakers, to wax effusive, so an affecting love story inflates into an overwrought passion, with the lovers invoking the shades of Oliver and Jenny rather than Orpheus and Eurydice.

Condensations of this sort are common. Philip Dunne turned John O’Hara’s ambitious novel of politics and power, Ten North Frederick, into a weepy autumn-spring affair between Gary Cooper and ingénue Suzy Parker, to cite one example. Occasionally, a filmmaker will find a way to stay faithful to a classic by deconstructing it, as Joe Wright did with Anna Karenina (but he had the advantage of working with noted playwright Tom Stoppard and the seasoned producing team of Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner). Michael Winterbottom transported Tess of the d’Urbervilles to modern India, and yet Trishna, which he wrote, produced and directed, is faithful to Thomas Hardy’s 1890s morality tale and relevant to contemporary audiences.

Goldsman, whose writing and producing credits include The Client, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Hancock, couldn’t take Winterbottom’s or Wright’s approach, for obvious reasons, but he might not have been so heavy-handed, like Dunne, when tugging on the heartstrings of true love tested but transcendent. Viewers who embrace Goldsman’s melodramatic style, somewhere between Hallmark and Harlequin, will not have a quarrel with his emendations to Helprin’s novel that make up the last third of the movie, which waxes ever more histrionic. Fans of the book will be disappointed, however, regardless of Goldsman’s efforts to infuse the essence of the original into his cinematic version. His heart was in the right place, just too much of it.