Review: 'Winter's Tale' never warms up as much of a love story

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What's faster than a speeding bullet and leaps tall buildings in a single bound? Not a bird or a plane, but Superhorse! -- possessed of a supernatural spirit in "Winter's Tale."

This isn't your Shakespeare's "Winter's Tale" (although that one is pretty supernatural, too, come to think of it). What else isn't it?

"This is not a true story," says the promotional tagline, " -- it's a love story."

It's good to get that, if not much else, cleared up in this lavish film version of Mark Helprin's fantasy novel. Set in New York City and spanning more than a century, from 1895 to the present, it concerns star-crossed destinies, good vs. evil, and miracles, starting with a soft-voiced narrator's ponderous rumination on time and distance:

'Winter's Tale'

Starring: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe.

Rating: PG-13 for violence and some sensuality.

"What if light came on wings as we turn into angels?" Hmmm. What, indeed? Mr. Helprin was perhaps channeling Tennessee Williams' "Glass Menagerie": "Time is the greatest distance between two places." But somebody must've changed the channel.

Enter Peter Lake as a newborn babe at Ellis Island, where his parents are cruelly turned away due to illness but manage to put him in a little boat -- Moses-like -- to float ashore in the Flatbush bulrushes.

Cut to the adult Peter (Colin Farrell), a master thief frantically on the run, just a few steps ahead of villain-in-chief Pearly (Russell Crowe) and his gang. The sudden (miraculous?) appearance of a white horse gets him out of jam No. 1.

Jam No. 2 occurs when he is caught in the act of burglarizing the fabulous Fifth Avenue digs of heiress Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), who -- instead of turning him in -- proffers a cup of tea.

If that doesn't win a man's heart, nothing will. She's also drop-dead gorgeous and plays Brahms beautifully. Problem is, she has a deadly case of consumption and just six to 12 months to live, at best.

Peter, for his part, has 6 to 12 minutes to live, due to the hot pursuit of demonic Pearly. His ace in the hole is something akin to reincarnation, with which he might be able to save Bev as well as himself. But to make it work, Peter needs a real miracle.

So does this movie.

The directorial debut of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, "Winter's Tale" and its script show little hint of the coherence of "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), for which Mr. Goldsman won a well-deserved Oscar. Here, he was handicapped from the start by the nature of Mr. Helprin's outlandish story and rococo language. Some might unkindly call it sentimental claptrap.

Whatever you call it, the on-screen result is a pastiche, borrowing bits and pieces of images, ideas and techniques from Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" (bad guys in bowlers) and "Hugo" (secret hideout/lookout above Grand Central Station), a little "E.T." here, a little "Alexander Nevsky" there.

But kudos to the cast, and a set of fine individual performances -- even if they never quite intermesh. Colin Farrell tries nobly. His painful sincerity and expressive, frightened eyes make for a warm and (almost) believable knight on a white horse. Winsome Ms. Brown Findlay (from "Downton Abbey") is a latter-day Helena Bonham Carter, with one front tooth slightly larger and more protrusive than the other. She and her smile and that little imperfection are "impossibly beautiful," indeed. So is the lovely love scene between her and Peter, which ends in a shocking new clinical phenomenon: postcoital rigor mortis!

While we're in Latin mode, let us now praise not the deus but the equus ex machina of the tale: You gotta totally love this truly gorgeous (and truly preposterous) white horse, as well as his name -- "Horse." There's a moment of unintentional humor when we see him parked in front of a Dunkin Donuts, but overall he's more stunning than Silver and the Tri-Star logo combined and more deserving of the Oscar for Best Quadruped in a Supporting Role.

Trouble is, there's too much time in between the periodic Pegasus moments and the Pearly-Peter encounters, in which the hero -- outnumbered 100-to-1 -- gets ample time to escape due to the hoary old device of the villain's yap-yap-yapping instead of just doing the murderous deed.

Still, Mr. Crowe is fine, with his facial tics and twitches and ugly red scar that flares up when agitated. William Hurt is terrific as Beverly's deathly calm father, explaining the different pronunciations of "claret," "fillet" and "wallet" to Peter. And the audience rumbles with recognition when Will Smith shows up as -- well, I won't spoil it for you, in case you go. It's also fun to see dear old Eva Marie Saint in a role reminiscent of Gloria Stuart's in "Titanic."

If the film doesn't add up to the sum of those nicely performed parts, it's no fault of out-the-wazoo production values, including Caleb Deschanel's knockout cinematography and Hans Zimmer's music.

Move a consonant or two: "Winter's Tale" is "Winter Stale," narratively speaking -- or Twilight Zone Light.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at

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