February 13, 2014



WINTER’S TALE:  Not Even For Free – 2 Hours of Thin Tinsel

The new movie WINTER’S TALE makes one ponder the phrase “labor of love.”  It marks the feature directing debut of the enormously successful writer/producer Akiva Goldsman, whose films include A Time To Kill, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Hancock, The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend and I, Robot, and the adaptation of Mark Helprin’s richly overstuffed 1983 novel is clearly one Goldsman cared about deeply.  He called in favors from his Beautiful Mind stars Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly to play major roles, probably at a fraction of their normal fees (the entire epic-scaled movie reportedly cost $45M to produce) and even got frequent colleague Will Smith to show up for an extended cameo.  It took years for Goldsman to put all this together, and none of it was done for mercenary reasons.  And yet the bulk of the labor seems to be coming from the audience.

The plot takes place in two timeframes.  The first half is set in pre-World War I New York, where Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a young, gifted thief who can break into any location, making him invaluable to the evil gang boss Pearly Soames (Crowe), who is infuriated when Peter resists working for him.  While robbing her family mansion on his own, Peter falls instantly in love with the beautiful, consumptive classical pianist Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay, from Downton Abbey), and wants to turn over a new leaf, but Soames won’t let him go, for reasons that go beyond mere gangland meanness–Soames is literally a demon, at the command of the Lucifer-ish Judge (Smith), and he’s determined to kill Peter’s spirit and extinguish all love and goodness in the world.  Things don’t end well, although the magical white horse Athansor (no, really), which periodically rescues Peter, carries him to the story’s second half.  This takes place in a more-or-less contemporary New York, where Peter is ageless but also an amnesiac, wandering the streets until he meets reporter Virgina Gamely (Connelly) and her sickly daughter.  There is, naturally, a mystical connection between them that will lead Peter to his destiny, but Pearly and the Judge are also still around, and they complicate things for the heroic group.

It’s harder to explain why Helprin’s novel works than why Goldsman’s adaptation doesn’t.  The reductive script peels away all but the bare plot essentials of the book, and without the context of the author’s voice and the remarkably intricate imagined alternate universe where the story takes place, what’s left is a fantasy romance so emphatic that it’s silly.  The film becomes everything the novel somehow avoided being.

It doesn’t help that the otherworldly romance of the novel is all about the throes of first love, while 37-year old Colin Farrell, although he looks as great as any 37-year old human can, is long past the age where he’s believable as a young man feeling true love for the first time in his life; the radiant Findlay, at 24, hardly seems like his proper soulmate.  (Farrell works very hard, but he seems much better suited for Connelly, which is not where the movie’s heart lies.)   Goldsman doesn’t even seem to recognize this as a problem, and just barrels past, as he does with most of the story’s unlikelihoods.  Crowe is utterly one-note as Pearly, although it’s a note he can do comfortably without visible effort, and Smith at least seems to be having fun with his atypical Satanic turn.  Other fine actors like William Hurt (as Beverly’s father) and Eva Marie Saint (as a contemporary Times editor with a connection to the 1916 story) do good work, but they can’t save the film.

The filmmaking style of Winter’s Tale is remarkably inconsistent, perhaps for budget reasons.  Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has given the images a lovely glow, and the production design by Naomi Shohan is handsome, but the CG effects are low-rent in a way we rarely see in big-studio movies these days.  The insistent score by Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams is applied with a trowel.

Winter’s Tale would have been an ambitious choice for any first-time feature director, with a tone, structure and technical demands that required precision and an imagination beyond mere craftsmanship.  It’s a very different kind of project than the mostly genre pieces that Goldsman has so successfully churned out for other directors, and sadly it’s a major overreach for him, buried under a snowbank of unconvincing fantasy and attenuated romance.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."