½ out of 4 stars
Book adaptations present some of the toughest challenges to filmmakers working today, in particular adaptations of fantasy. In a modern movie culture saturated with vampires, wizards, and demigods, the expectations for these pieces is unsurprisingly low. Winter’s Tale, based on the 1983 book by Mark Helprin, obviously had its work cut out for it.
And it is perhaps worse that for a film that clearly had so much work put into it, the result is much worse than the expectation. The clunky, uninspired film never stood a chance with a rookie director, an anemic screenplay, and poor acting choices from an otherwise high-caliber cast.
Peter Lake (Colin Ferrell) is a skilled thief living in 1915 New York City. He discovers a beautiful young woman named Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) in a house he is robbing and the pair fall in love, though with the knowledge that Beverly is tragically dying from tuberculosis. The sinister gangster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) is pursuing Peter and Beverly with plans to kill them as part of a mysterious plot of extraplanar proportions, involving a guardian horse spirit and a love that literally transcends a century.
Akiva Goldsman’s skill as a screenwriter (A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man) no doubt has led to this, his directing debut. Unfortunately the feeling of “debut” comes across all too well here. The sloppy staging, odd pace, and mediocre acting reflect the attempts of a novice director who is obviously just trying different techniques he has seen from other directors he has worked alongside.
His usage of camera flares creates an incredibly heavy handed take on the films central theme of light, which becomes particularly annoying when characters actually say “light” as the flares are happening. Moreover, Goldsman needs more time and practice if he wants to attempt action scenes like the ones this film so desperately requires, all of which come across incredibly pedestrian and lazy in staging and shooting.
Whether due to an over-ambition or carelessness, Goldman’s screenplay consists primarily of spoken character objectives and plot points. This bare bones, hand-holding technique allows little room for the audience to figure out the story and characters themselves and instead simplifies the elements to the point of insult. Some potentially beautiful thematic material is dropped swiftly for the sake of plot momentum, creating the sense of a machine more than a work of art (ironically enough, this closely matches the motif of humans as machines). Additionally, the story is unbelievably confusing, particularly when it comes to character motivations, whether this be the fault of the script or the actors.
Colin Ferrell has proven to be a more than capable actor time and time again, and he unfortunately is just let down by the material here, despite his best efforts. He is also let down by a beautiful but uninteresting Jessica Brown Findlay. The pair have little chemistry and it makes their sudden romance seem less spontaneous and more psycho.
Will Smith gives a strange performance as the Judge, and quite honestly his casting is very questionable considering he has never truly had the chops to pull off a challenge like the one he has been handed. But nothing will prepare you for Russell Crowe. The veteran actor has truly gone off the deep end, creating something close to Jack Nicholson’s Joker on Novocain.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff and The Patriot) seems an odd choice for this film, as his style has never been particularly fantastical. The odd pairing with this story could have created for an interesting paradox, but instead makes the fantasy elements uncomfortably unexpected and almost laughable when they occur.
The art directors’ beautiful recreation of 1915 New York City should not go unnoticed, particularly the more upscale portions such as the Penn estate. But the more rundown areas seem to lose elements of dimension and texture for some reason, coming across as Star Trek-style cardboard sets. The costumes clearly were designed with no awareness of the art direction, as both seem to blend into each other like beige on beige. And the poor visual effects (even with as few effects as there are) more closely resemble TV-movie effects than those of hit-blockbusters.
Could this have worked? Possibly not.
From a person who has never read the source material, it seems there are just too many elements and acts in the book that a film adaptation would have only worked in the form of a miniseries. But even were that to be the production approach taken, Winter’s Tale requires keener direction, stronger actors, and more astute design choices to achieve success. The forgettable, near embarrassing product we are presented with unfortunately falls right onto the shelf next to the Twilight’s and Percy Jackson’s we have come to expect today for fantasy films.
Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University – London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington.