“For even time and distance are not what they appear to be”
Can you buy a world where angels and demons walk alongside humans, gently coaxing us onto a path of righteousness or evil in order to tip the scales of eternity their way throughout time infinite? What about the idea that we each have a miracle to give to the one person we are meant to love unequivocally if only we’re destined to meet him/her? How about two Russian immigrants being deported back home who’d lower a model ship carrying their baby son into the ocean because the chance he’ll float to New York City’s open arms unscathed is better than raising him in Siberia? If you said yes to these three questions, Winter’s Tale might be for you and your Valentine.
I have to imagine Neil Gaiman read Mark Helprin‘s 1983 novel before writing his dark fantasy adventure Neverwhere as similarities in their blueprints are uncanny. It’s as though Gaiman thought there was potential if only the romance and idyllic yearning for hope, happily ever afters, and true love were removed for a palpable danger inside a parallel universe of good and evil sparring in a quest for power. But while he improved upon the template if so—especially to my taste—there’s still something about Helprin’s creation. Placing his love story within a setting populated by menacing demons and guardian angels is a rather inspired maneuver even if it’s clichéd and saccharine. Probably fresher in the 80s, I was nonetheless captivated beyond its obvious trajectory. While I bought in, though, many surely will not.
The beauty of Akiva Goldsman‘s directorial debut, however, is that the trailer should weed out those without the desire to give in. I mean, if you rolled your eyes at the scene of love-at-first-site between Peter Lake’s (Colin Farrell) thief and the young, terminally-ill pianist alone in the house he’s about to rob—Jessica Brown Findlay‘s Beverly Penn—you’ve already figured out how to steer your date towards another activity so he/she can watch with the girls/guys who “aww’d” instead. It’s about a bad boy turning good thanks to a love he never thought possible and the girl who gave it if only for a few days. And all the while former boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) hunts them down to stop that moment of joy before it can earn God one more star in Heaven.
And no, that’s not a metaphor—well it is and it isn’t. Soames is the demon leader of a human hoard of death and destruction tasked to prevent all miracles within his district. Crowe’s anger separates his face into bloody scars of menace and rage, forcing his temper to coldly murder those who disappoint as well as challenge Lucifer (a surprise cameo that got the audience excited) into bending the rules so he may go beyond his boundaries to wreak havoc. The angels are subtler, shed of their wings they simply walk around nudging humanity this way or that in hopes they embrace their opportunities for selflessness. There is the flying, magical horse companion who’s actually a transformative dog (?), but even he has a tendency to stand still and watch as Peter acts alone.
Most of the film takes place in this magical New York City of 1914 as Peter and Beverly flourish in love at her family’s estate under the watchful, compassionate eye of father Isaac (William Hurt). They dance, laugh, and forget the danger and her mortality until it can be avoided no more. And as the trailer shows, Peter eventually stands off against Pearly, falls from the Brooklyn Bridge, and awakens an amnesiac one hundred years later. He meets Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly) and her young daughter Abby (Ripley Sobo), slowly uncovers who he is and his purpose for surviving, and takes Helprin’s tale to new heights of spirituality. What we believed to be true wasn’t quite what it seemed and what is true comes quickly without much surprise.
This is Winter’s Tale’s biggest flaw: it feels rushed in giving us all the story beats because it has to set up this magical world before taking it into absolute fantasy by the end. Rather than flow naturally, it unfolds with hitches as point A connects to B and so on. As a result the magic will sometimes prove an afterthought and others the most important device of the whole endeavor. Sometimes it’s simply about love and others it’s the war for salvation that wages in perpetuity. Little quips like Crowe saying how miracles have been down this year are fun if not flippant; mirroring between centuries and characters is too on-the-nose to truly capture our hearts on an emotional level beyond the “a-ha” moment of Peter’s purpose. Even at two-hours it seems we’re missing a lot.
Thankfully the acting helps keep our interest whether Farrell’s evolution as a criminal to a compassionate soul or Crowe’s brutal monster filled to the brim with bile. There’s a recognizable supporting cast from Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, and Eva Marie Saint so Goldman’s clout as an Oscar-winning screenwriter obviously called in some favors and/or pulled some strings. The special effects range from effective (Crowe’s demon face) to over-the-top (Lucifer’s shadow/teeth) to sugary-sweet (the light beams of reflections that connect all of God’s creations) while the story finds a decent balance between real world and fantasy even if it sometimes grips one too tightly above the other. It’s the epitome of a heartfelt Valentine and should do well at the box office, but it’s definitely nothing more than that.
 Copyright: © 2014 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. – U.S., CANADA, BAHAMAS & BERMUDA AND VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI) LIMITED – ALL OTHER TERRITORIES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) JESSICA BROWN FINDLAY as Beverly Penn and COLIN FARRELL as Peter Lake in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ romantic fantasy adventure “WINTER’S TALE,” distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures and in select territories by Village Roadshow Pictures.
 Copyright: © 2014 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. – U.S., CANADA, BAHAMAS & BERMUDA AND VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI) LIMITED – ALL OTHER TERRITORIES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Photo Credit: David C. Lee Caption: (L-r) COLIN FARRELL as Peter Lake and JENNIFER CONNELLY as Virginia Gamely in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ romantic fantasy adventure “WINTER’S TALE,” distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures and in select territories by Village Roadshow Pictures.
 Copyright: © 2014 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. – U.S., CANADA, BAHAMAS & BERMUDA AND VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI) LIMITED – ALL OTHER TERRITORIES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: RUSSELL CROWE (center) as Pearly Soames in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ romantic fantasy adventure “WINTER’S TALE,” distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures and in select territories by Village Roadshow Pictures.