Silver Screen: Winter's Tale 1/2*
It’s often futile to compare a literary adaptation to the novel on which it’s based. Movies are driven by different conventions and hemmed in by separate constraints of time and scale. Yet it’s essential to compare Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale to Akiva Goldsman’s cinematic counterpart, as it is the only way to make a lick of sense of the borderline-incoherent mess of a movie.
Helprin’s novel is at once ungainly and delicate. It’s an eight-hundred-page alternate history of New York City that employs a sprawling cast of outsized characters and splits the difference between magical realism and fantasy. This version of the island of Manhattan is surrounded by a wall of clouds that separates a clan of deadly oystermen, described as something like blue-collar samurai, from their cosmopolitan counterparts. The book’s thief hero rides a white horse that can sometimes leap hundreds of feet into the sky, and his ladylove is a feverish heiress whose fictional ailment forces her to sleep in an open-air tent in the snow to stay alive.
The novel is beautifully written and possesses a precarious tone that walks the line between fairytale whimsicality and blustery silliness. Its lush poetics excuse its more overwrought turns of plot, which sometimes borderline on contrivances. Martin Scorsese, a guy who knows a thing or two about writing odes to New York City, has called it “unfilmable.”
Inexplicably acclaimed screenwriter Goldsman has chosen it as his directorial debut. (Goldsman has written scripts for overhyped schlock like Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, and The Da Vinci Code, as well as reasonably reviled failures like Batman and Robin, Lost in Space, and I, Robot.) He’s sort of proved Scorsese wrong; turns out Winter’s Tale is indeed filmable, but the results are unwatchable.
Goldsman wisely excises select plotlines from the complex narrative. His version focuses almost entirely on Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), an orphan turned street urchin who grows up to be the city’s best burglar. While filching items from a mansion he falls for one of its inhabitants, Beverly Penn (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay), a consumptive heiress whose widower father (William Hurt) goes to great lengths to keep her alive and relatively healthy. Peter forsakes his illicit line of work and pledges himself to Beverly, which rouses the ire of gang boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), who pledges to destroy his former underling along with his new girlfriend.
That’s a plotline for a potentially decent film. What it does not account for is a mid-movie leap one-hundred years into the future, where a still youthful Peter makes the acquaintance of a newspaper writer (Jennifer Connelly) whose precocious young daughter is dying of cancer even as Soames continues to hunt for him.
Goldsman has stripped the poetry from Winter’s Tale, leaving only the hokum. Worse still, he feels the literalist’s need to account for the story’s essential magical realism with phony mythology. Soames is transformed from a larger-than-life gang boss into an actual demon whose face splits into bloody computer-generated wounds when he’s driven to anger. This Soames is a monster directly in service of Lucifer, played here by Will Smith wearing an anachronistic Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and reading A Brief History of Time eighty or so years before its publication. All of the story’s nuances are flattened and simplified with a neat teleology. It’s the equivalent of excusing the strange occurrences of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s One-hundred Years of Solitude by claiming the characters have developed superpowers via a Marvel comic-book mutant gene.
The execution is dreadful at almost every level. The dialogue is stilted, the characters buried under heaps of affectation, and the whole enterprise is a nine-car pileup of mismatched accents. Crowe is especially awful as a cartoonishly sputtering bad guy, and the scene in which he interacts with a hilariously unmenacing Will Smith should receive a lifetime underachievement award from the Golden Raspberry Awards.
Plenty of brilliant books have been rendered dumb by cinema, but Winter’s Tale is unique in that the attempt at simplification turns the whole thing into a nonsensical jumble. The only way to know what’s really going on in Winter’s Tale is to know what Goldsman got wrong— otherwise there’s no accounting for Connelly’s seemingly important yet totally underdeveloped character, or why we should care about her sickly daughter. Goldsman’s Winter’s Tale moves capriciously through time and space. Not only does it consistently excuse its implausibilities with trite sentiments about the power of love and the interconnectedness of all things, but even worse, it fails to recognize the potential beauty of implausibility.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.