Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2014

Winter's Tale

A winter of discontent

'Winter's Tale' is madness without method

Winter's Tale
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Akiva Goldsman
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Mark Helprin
Starring: Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly and Mckayla Twiggs
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 58 minutes
February 14, 2014
(out of four)

One of the most obvious signs that a movie is not to be taken seriously is prominent use of the phrase, "Everything is connected." If this is one of its guiding existential principles, it's best to keep away - more than likely you're either in for some New Age pseudo-intellectual drivel or a trite Sunday School lesson. Or both. You see a movie with that message and you just want to grab it by its shoulders, shake some sense into it and inform it that it's not a stoned college freshman anymore.

Most of the time the idea is a false promise anyway, and nothing in the movie really connects at all. Other times, the film really does try to connect all of its dots, which is even worse.

And then there's the third category - the movies that think they've connected everything and truly made sense of the world, only for us to step back and realize they've made a hot mess of it all. Winter's Tale is one such movie, a nonsensical collection of meanings and platitudes masquerading as a mystical fable. It begins by making no sense at all, but fully aware of that fact and confident that by the time everything has been revealed it will all be crystal clear. But of course when those revelations and connections finally come to light, they serve only to obscure whatever purpose or big idea it was presumably going for underneath an unwieldy mass of narrative gimmicks and shortcuts.

This is, for all intents and purposes, a puzzle movie, made up of plot pieces being mixed and matched until finally revealing the whole picture. But it mistakes that structure for complexity, and its individual pieces for meaning. The way things eventually fit together - to the extent that they actually do - never makes it feel like something is coalescing into an immaculate whole. It always comes across as the result of mechanical screenwriting. The story seems entirely driven by the arbitrary rules that govern it.

The script comes courtesy of Akiva Goldsman, the noted hack screenwriter who, with Winter's Tale, has graduated to hack feature-film director. Adapting Mark Helprin's 1983 novel (which I haven't read), Goldsman has earnestly attempted a piece of spiritually tinged magical realism, but without any sense of how to construct the thing.

I was describing the movie to a friend recently, detail by detail and point by point, and the further along I got, the more ridiculous it sounded. But in fairness, I don't think any of those details are the problem. I can see how all of this might have worked in the right hands - or perhaps in Helprin's novel. But in Goldsman's hands, it plays like a bad fairy tale that takes the most complicated path possible to have one specific event take place. When all is said and done, I couldn't help but wonder why Goldsman had needed two hours and a 120-year time span just to have that one thing happen.

The film's existential ideas are only used to support a story that gets flimsier with every turn. Perhaps if Goldsman had spent more time fleshing out the world itself instead of focusing on the way the various plot machinations fit together, this could have been a smoother translation. The film shifts from the present day to 1916 and back again - with a brief excursion to 1886 for good measure - and proceeds to bend space and time and fate and free will. This world - set in and around New York City - is governed by angels and demons, doing the day-to-day work of God and the devil. Or, as they're referred to in this case, order and chaos. (I'm more than a little miffed that "chaos" is the ostensibly evil opposite of a supreme deity, but that's a whole other topic.)

We don't see much of the angels - only one vengeful demons named Pearly (Russell Crowe), who wants to kill his former protégé and professional thief Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), who's in love with Beverly (Jessica Findlay Brown), who's dying of consumption. Pearly and his henchmen specialize in stealing (or thwarting) miracles - every job done is a tip in the favor of the dark side. (I presume.) Miracles, you might ask? Well, everyone gets one miracles, you see. From what I gather, it allows you to save one life. And Pearly thinks he knows just whose life Peter wants to save, and he'll have none of it. In fact, he tries to kill Beverly one evening, only for Peter to show up on his magical white horse at the last second and save her. Oh, and the magical white horse can fly, too.

The present-day timeline involves a bearded, long-haired, amnesiac Peter Lake popping up in New York with only a few clues to his identity and past gnawing at the back of his mind. Thankfully, he runs into a friendly newspaper reporter (Jennifer Connelly), who offers a helping hand as he tries to piece his identity together.

There's so much other hokum and inexplicability I could get into, but it would almost be a disservice to a movie that's already pretty bad as it is. The story of Winter's Tale may be silly on its face, but silly isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that Goldsman proves fully incapable of nuancing the material or molding it into the magical parable he thinks he's making. The film's visuals are pretty, but in a bland sort of way. Pretty snow, pretty sky, pretty lake, pretty forest, pretty horse - all of it perfectly lovely to look at without ever having any impact.

I've read that, in the years since Helprin's novel was first published, several filmmakers have tried to take on the challenge of adapting it. Most found it unfilmable. For all his good intentions, Goldsman may have just proven them right.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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