Starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly
Directed by Akiva Goldsman
From Village Roadshow and Warner Bros. Pictures
Angels and demons collide in vapid fantasy romance
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
A Winter’s Tale is undiluted romance. Cut it with some sugar and water and you’re likely to get a quadrilogy of sappy love stories.
This movie knows its audience and preach-panders directly to it. I don’t want to generalize and say the audience is women, but it’s mostly women. They’ll adore this movie. They’ll cherish every innocuous detail, every pretentious prop, every whispered stanza of romance. It will live on in their spongy lovelorn hearts as the ultimate personification of emotional tenderness, sacrifice and redemption.
Listen, I’m going to complain about this, but please understand this is the way it goes: men get dragged to these movies and, after a brief window of whiny complacency, they shrug their shoulders and admit the movie wasn’t made for them. This is my window to complain.
A Winter’s Tale plunges headfirst into lady culture. It’s about a girl effortlessly playing the piano, the exchanging of miracles, flying magical horses, princess kisses, charcoal drawings of feminine figures, cute little girls in overly large woolen mittens, beds of roses, an abundance of star metaphors, boxes full of sentimental mementos, cancer scares and eternal love sprinkled in the cosmos. This laundry list might sound exaggerated, but I promise you it’s entirely accurate.
It begins in the 19th century when an immigrant family is turned away from America at Ellis Island because the husband has some sort of contagious disease. In the New York harbor, before a boat takes them back to their home country, the couple stuffs their baby in a wooden model boat and sends it sailing toward Manhattan — because pulling a Moses on your infant is better than, oh I don’t know, being a parent. The baby grows up to be Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a masterclass thief whose special move is using a comically large grappling hook to shimmy up the front of Brownstones in broad daylight.
After running afoul with henchman Pearly (Russell Crowe), Peter prepares to leave the city on an especially agile horse that won’t gallop away until Peter makes one more score. This horse is a bad influence, but nevertheless Peter Bat-grapples into the home of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is home sick with “consumption,” which means she has to stay icy cold like a comic villain. They meet in the parlor, her at her piano banging out Brahms and he with his pistol unholstered and his burglar bag empty. She invites him in for tea. Of course, they fall in love.
What happens next I wasn’t prepared for: angels and demons reveal themselves as vital players in this otherwise sleepy game of romance. And when I say angels and demons, that’s not allegory or metaphor, but actual angels and demons. Pearly plays the demon, and he has a scene where he ventures to meet Lucifer, who turns out to be Will Smith in a cameo so nutty it felt like a product placement for Planters. Lucifer and God have an agreement that neither angels or demons will interfere too much in the lives of humans. “Lou” has to tell Pearly to back off a little, which makes him even more sinister.
Meanwhile, Peter, who might be an angel, has to escape from Pearly without endangering Beverly and without using his “miracle,” which is apparently something he can just give away to anyone, although I first thought it was Beverly’s virginity which also figures into the plot. Before he knows it, though, Peter is waking up in modern-day New York City and trying to right more than a century of wrongs. And Pearly, his crime den now filled with flat screens instead of blackboards, still has a chip on his shoulder for the one who got away.
Yeesh, this movie. It just keeps going and going. And as the dialogue gets blander and blander (“You are my distant star bright and special … blah, blah, blah”) the acting grows more and more frustrating. Beverly is interesting, if only because her medical condition is so laughably odd. She has to sleep in tents in the winter, walk through the snow in nightgowns, and take icy baths when her hand can fog a mirror. If only they had a refrigerator they could stuff her into like that baby and the boat. Farrell is also intriguing, even though I never thought he knew what was happening. I can picture him on the set asking questions and then shrugging, “Nevermind, it’s easier when I don’t know.”
The movie is directed, written and produced by screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who worked tirelessly for many years to bring Mark Helprin’s novel to the screen. While I thought A Winter’s Tale was tirelessly self-involved and plotted, I must acknowledge that fans of these types of movies will likely adore all that transpires. Two women sitting near me were unabashed by their infatuation for Peter, Beverly and their magical tale; when the movie ended, they were in puddles. I also must admit that his movie makes much more sense than anything in the Twilight series — not a difficult feat, though.
And a quick word on women and Valentine’s Day movies: I’ve made some cheap jokes here about how A Winter’s Tale is a woman’s movie, but we live in a changing world, where a woman might soon be in the White House, a gay man might soon be in the NFL and the pictures on bathrooms doors are merely suggestions for bathroom users. The gender landscapes are ever changing. Women will appreciate this movie, but they won’t be the only ones. If a movie brings joy into your life, then it has succeeded at something.
My heart does go out to spouses and dates, no matter the gender, though — grumble silently without ruining it for anyone else. It'll be over soon enough.