Winter’s Tale (2014)
This is probably the most difficult review I’ve faced for quite some time. It’s difficult because the source of this new romantic fairy tale flick is Mark Helprin’s 1983 magical realist masterpiece Winter’s Tale, a book which I broadly consider as the greatest novel I have ever read. Let’s just let that sink in for a while, this is my favourite book of a fairly voracious reader, all 750 pages of which I’ve plundered through three times, although I’ve resisted going back to it in the past decade for another well-earned pass for reasons I’ll get into a little later. In an ideal world the film adaption would be a $200 million three-hour epic directed by some Frankenstein hybrid of Scorsese’s intimate and affectionate understanding of his birthplace, Tim Burton’s (when he was good so pre 21st century) frosty sense of doomed romance, with just a lightly feathered dusting of Spielbergian magical awe and wonder. Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect universe so if my heart sank when I heard the news that Akiva Batman & Robin Goldsman was attached for script and writing duties then it stratospherically plummeted when that retch inducing first trailer started cantering throughout the internet, it appearing that Ron Howard’s go to scribe had decided to aim his translation of this epic, sweeping, hyperborean magical masterpiece at 14 year-old doe eyed adolescents. Resistance levels were high when I strolled into the Greenwich Odeon to finally face this potential travesty, but before we get into the resulting two-hour experience I will not be adding the redundant ‘A New York’ suffix which the films marketing department have stupidly appended to the title, because only in Hollywood would associating your product with the scribblings of arguably civilisations greatest ever playwright be regarded as a bad thing, presumably as the Shakespearean connotations might cause certain imbecile punters from avoiding the picture for its lofty language. This film in many, many ways, by any objective reality is simply a terrible movie, but that didn’t stop me from perversely falling a little in love with it, and not just because Menagerie favourite Jennifer Connelly is in it*.
In a rather clumsy opening we follow the soon to be named amnesiac Peter Lake (Colin Farrel in full oirish brogue) as he wanders distractedly through the city so great they named it twice. Master thief and engineering savant Lake is an orphan whom Moses alike was tearfully despatched to the city by his parents on an infant sized ship back in 1895, now an adult in 1914 – the film leaps between the present day and the Belle Époque period – he is on the run from the snarling clutches of Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and his disposable henchmen for transgressions which remain somewhat uncertain. Spying a potential lucrative score in a Central Park brownstone he slips into the domicile, only to find that not all the occupants have fled the city for a festive themed holiday, as he alights upon the luminous Beverley Penn (Jessica Brown Finlay), a delicate young beauty who tragically only has months to live due to a lethal bout of fiery consumption. True love soon blossoms amidst the algid New York winter, as Peter and Beverley’s romance faces the twin fury of her medical condemnation and Soames cloaked, sulphurous vengeance….
I suspect I’m going to regret writing this in the morning, and maybe it’s the scotch swilling through my system which gives me some sense of dutch courage , but I’ll admit it – tears were shed at the simple, unadulterated joy at seeing this beloved novel finally rendered on-screen after a quarter century of devoted patience. It’s been a labour of love for Goldsman who has struggled to get the film made for many years, accelerating his passion and drive for the project following the sudden death of his wife some years ago (which also gives the film a meta-context if ever there was one), and whilst I admire his persistence the film is also by turns deeply infuriating for concupiscent devotees of the novel, as in one section he gets everything right, by the next section everything falls apart. The central pulsing core of the novel, the romance between Beverley and Peter convinced me despite the overwhelming sentimental framing of Goldsman’s tone and approach, so I’m sure the crucifixion of the picture by my learned colleagues in the critical fraternity (well, I’m assuming a little here, the first unimpeachable rule of my approach to film criticism is to never read any reviews until you’ve composed yours) is completely justifiable and accurate, but my god in places this really got to me whether by osmosis or sepia tinged recollection – the film is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.
Alas there is no concrete sense of New York as a breathing and brazen entity, a clanging, imperfect yet inspirational smokestack colossus pregnant with an imperious and optimistic beauty, the personification of the American dream as the young country transitioned from the rural to the industrial at the turn of the century before two world wars soured the starlight which illuminates Helprin’s piquant prose. Other facets of the 750 page epic are also sacrificed at the altar of brevity, most disappointingly the warring newspaper moguls and some of the books peripheral characters and contortions, but then there is the Lake of the Coheeries amaranthine frozen aesthetics, some exquisite nods to the books historic ameliorations, and on occasion a cloudy sense of wonder and awe which vigorously infiltrates the picture in one scene, only to dissipate at the arrival of the next like the slow cerebral disintegration of a fading dream. Utterly indefensible however is the cartoonish bellowing of Russell Crowe, if they had got this central and beloved character correct then the majority of the films other fluctuations could have been overlooked, but as the primary antagonist of the picture his failures – both in malignant presence and accent atrocities – pull the film down whenever he devilishly butchers a scene. It’s always a problem when in your mind’s eye you have a conception of a character which is not correctly mirrored on-screen, and the intervention of a certain character not in the novel to enable a throughly redundant A list cameo is woefully inadequate, it serves only to crowbar in some clumsy plot motivation which is alluded in the novel but unnecessary in this truncated medium. These scenes are as badly written as they are clumsily edited, if literally for Christ’s sake you’re gonna put The Lord of Lies in your picture then please get someone with a menacing presence to step into those sulphur soiled shoes.
When the film’s narrative shifts back to the present day the affectations appear as an afterthought, so the thawed run-time prevents the final act to build the resonance and crucial empathic connections with the preceding elements, rendering it nigh impossible to develop any abiding affinity or warmth with Jennifer Connelly and her daughters contemporary plight, a flaw in the potential diamond which is perhaps the films most grevious blemish. The cinematography however illuminates the love and attention refracted through the picture, Caleb Deschanel’s (father of Zooey magic pixie dream-girl fans) ecumenical palette streaking the frame with lens flares and candle lit interiors which echo one of the books trifling, peripheral concerns – the magical transformative power of light, of a spirit powered by a pure and unadulterated love being potentially able to defeat even death. Like the novel’s binary temporal structure Winter’s Tale pitches between algorithmic peaks and valleys, soaring in one moment and then plunging the next, a rather frustrating experience which nevertheless retains some shards of the novels immense ambition and sorceress asymmetry.
So we finally canter to a stop with the realisation that in six years we have a Menagerie first – this is a film which in good conscience I simply cannot recommend to those ignorant of the source material, nor ironically can I champion this to fans of the book given its glaring omissions, yet Winter’s Tale was not the frigid atrocity I expected and I think on final reflection I have to confess that I kinda liked it, as some of the achievements may just manage to eclipse its shivering flaws. I cannot justify this on any sort of rational basis, it’s certainly a cloying, suffocating, deeply sentimental piece which normally would have me running and shrieking for the exits, so maybe it caught me in a rare, contemplative and forgiving mood, although I’m certain and will immediately confess that my deep love for the novel has definitely clouded my judgement. Whatever future viewings may yield the film has inspired me to make two strategic executive decisions – the first to re-read the book again for the 4th time, always a dangerous proposition as going back to such important texts in your life can be devastating if they don’t age well and confirm to your idealistic prejudices, or maybe I’ll simply opt for this fabulous frosty find. The second is to make some serious enquiries into covering the New York film festival later in the year, I visited that incredible metropolis a terrifying fifteen years ago and loved the place with all its chaos, cosmopolitan history and unadulterated ambition, and I’ve loosely been planning to return for quite some time. Sometimes a small sense of inspiration is enough…….isn’t it?
* I really really really really really really really really really really really really really like Jennifer Connelly.