There’s something Shakespearean about “Winter’s Tale.” Perhaps it’s the way everyone talks in British or Irish accents, faked or genuine; or how the emotions seem to fester in the depths of a hot caldron; or the grandiose gestures and sweeping statements that are often delivered out of context and leave you stranded in a marshland of question marks.
“Winter’s Tale” was adapted from a much-loved 1983 novel by Mark Helprin but by many accounts director Akiva Goldsman (who also penned the screenplay) took to the original with a butcher’s knife, rendering the story unrecognizable. I can’t judge, having not read the novel, but the story does seem convoluted, chaotic and dense with unnecessary ingredients. Having said that, it’s still a treat to look at — the backdrop being New York City in the early 20th century, with its arctic lights, stone-paved streets, and Colin Farrell looking appropriately vintage-attired (though modern-day Brooklyn hipsters dress like that too) strolling the dark streets in hobnailed boots or whatever they’re called.
Farrell plays Peter Lake, a world-weary professional thief who rides around on a white steed and charms the socks off young heiress Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). She is alone in the mansion that he breaks into, dressed in a fluffy white nightgown with all the windows open in winter because she’s has consumption and a high fever. Beverly offers to make Peter a cup of tea, he accepts graciously, and by the time he finishes drinking, they’ve fallen in love.
So far, so romantic in a “Much Ado About Nothing” kind of way. Peter even ingratiates himself with Beverly’s parents, though he’s twice her age and can’t give out much information about what he does for a living.
As long as Peter and Beverly are gallavanting all over old New York (the Upper West Side and Central Park look absolutely gorgeous) or on a holiday trip up the Hudson River, “Winter’s Tale” has an authentic sweetness to it that’s quite palatable. But when the story makes a swerve into 2014 and Peter is wandering the streets alone, not knowing who or what he is, you start to feel your commitment falter.
Whimsy and fantasy is all very well, but director Goldsman seems less interested in laying the groundwork for a suspension of disbelief than throwing ever more characters and elements into the mix. You’ll see Jennifer Connelly — her aura sadly wasted on yet another role as a single mother — ambivalent about whether she’s attracted to Peter, with a face permanently set in lines of worry over a cancerous daughter. Then there’s Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), who’s evil and vindictive and hates Peter like the plague for reasons never really made clear. He pursues poor Peter through time and space because “the world is magic,” which is a phrase used far too frequently to explain just about everything in the film.
No one discusses the rents in Manhattan, of course. Now there’s an issue that could really use some of that magic stuff.