That thud you just heard was “Winter’s Tale” landing in the theaters today, and poised to become a touchstone in the history of misbegotten literary adaptations.
It’s been 30 years since Mark Helprin published his enchanting and enchanted novel about time travel, Old New York, beautiful consumptives, a gang called the Short Tails, and a Marc Chagall-meets-steam-punk aesthetic. But given what Akiva Goldsman has chosen to do with it, well, there was really no hurry.
The veteran screenwriter ("The Da Vinci Code"), making his feature directorial debut, apparently thought what Helprin’s magic-realist novel needed was less magic. This he has provided. The baroque construction of the novel is lost, the emotional resonance of the language is abandoned, the things that seemed charmed in the book now seem juvenile, especially since they’re given no room to breathe or live. The movie isn’t just inert, it seems silly. Which is probably why Helprin, off in Virginia or wherever he’s holed up, declined to do any press.
Cast as Helprin’s Ellis Island orphan Peter Lake – set adrift by his ill, refugee parents (who, according to the author, in a 1983 interview, died when their boat caught fire en route back to Europe), and raised by bogmen on the marshes of Bayonne, N.J. -- is Colin Farrell. A really likable actor, he may simply be too intelligent to be a movie star; he can’t sell Goldsman’s dialogue, because he can’t possibly buy it himself. Peter would seem like a great character – a thief, a fugitive, living in the vaulted ceiling of Grand Central Terminal, and befriended by a flying white horse (think of the Tristar logo). But even a great character needs adequate storytelling.
Conversely, Russell Crowe, like a belch in church, always manages to get your attention. He is appropriately grotesque as Pearly Soames, the gangster of New York who wants Peter dead and is willing to live a hundred years to get him. He also, as it happens, is in league with Lucifer (Will Smith). Why does Pearly want Peter thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge? Who knows? Despite the two-hour running time of the film, the fabric of the novel is in tatters by the time Goldsman gets done with it, and one gets the sense no one was really serious: Smith’s appearance, and Crowe’s too, seem to be less about drama than the fact that they starred in Goldsman’s more successful films (“A Beautiful Mind,” “I Am Legend” among them). Maybe he thought that, like magic, some luck would rub off.
Escaping more or less unscathed is Jessica Brown Findlay, last seen dying in “Downton Abbey” (as Lady Sarah Crawley) and dying again as Beverly Penn, flushed and feverish newspaper heiress. In a movie that can’t find a tone it likes – which is fatal for a fable -- she rises above it all gracefully. But she’d need more than flying horse to take the rest of the cast with her.