By Caryn James | James on Screens February 14, 2014 at 9:59AM
A white winged horse soars across the New York skyline, reminding us of . . . the Tri-Star production logo? We aren't meant to be that distracted, but if a flying horse can't capture any magic you can imagine how thudding the rest of Winter's Tale is. Magical realism is particularly difficult to master on screen, where the fantastic can come to seem normal. This supposed romantic fantasy -- with Colin Farrell living more than a hundred years without aging; Jessica Brown Findlay as a beautiful young consumptive in the early 20th century, who loves him despite the fact that their meet-cute is that he's trying to rob her father's mansion; Russell Crowe as a demonic gangster whose facial scars crack his face open with bad special effects -- this stinker gives both magic and realism a bad name. It doesn't make romance seem so hot either. It's as if the film is a sinister plot to undermine Valentine's Day.
"This is not a true story, it's a love story," reads an on-screen epigram at the start, which slows you down right there. I wasn't aware they were mutually exclusive, but OK. Moving on, we see Peter Lake (Farrell) recovering some old mementos from the attic of Grand Central. In flashback, we see him as an infant, sent in a tiny boat (with deliberate Moses echoes) to New York by his desperate parents.
Zooming ahead to
1916, he is chased by thugs ruled by Pearly (Crowe, wearing a bowler and a snarl),
and on his way out of New York with the magical
horse meets Beverly (Brown Findlay, the late Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey). She is one of those
prettily-dying consumptives beloved by sentimental movie-makers; the
flourish here is that her fever goes so high she walks out in the wintertime
barefoot and snow melts under her feet. Maybe, as her little sister suggests, a
kiss from her handsome new burglar-suitor can cure her?
Or maybe not. By then,
who cares? We've already lost interest in two people who start out flat and
somehow get flatter. Farrell has enough on-screen presence to almost make us
want to keep watching, but not quite.
I'm not being harsh simply because sappy romances aren't my
taste. Even the interior logic of the fantasy world seems obscure. (Maybe it
helps to have read the source, Mark Helprin's 1983 novel.) The more fantastic elements are enough to
drive us away, including an unbilled appearance by Will Smith as a guy Pearly calls
Lou, short for Lucifer. With an electronically altered voice, Smith plays the Lucifer. When 1916 Pearly tells him "Shit happens," the anachronistic use
of the phrase is clearly deliberate --
which does absolutely nothing to make the scene more interesting. Like the
face-cracking special effects, such clues are too obvious and too scattershot
to register as anything more than useless blips.
Eventually we're back in 2014, where Peter has apparently been amnesiac for almost a century, and looks just the same except he's forgotten to cut his hair. Jennifer Connelly is there to help him unravel his lost past. So is Eva Marie Saint, whose character is not meant to be magical but I'm guessing must be about 104. She looks beautifully aged, but not that old.
Everybody involved should have known much better. Winter's Tale is the first film directed by Akiva Goldsman, the supremely accomplished screenwriter of films including A Beautiful Mind (so that explains Crowe and Connelly) and less successfully I, Robot (there's Will Smith). Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is surprisingly unmagical here, but at least it suits the rest of the film, one so consistently dull it feels like a vanity project with a Hollywood budget.