Adapting a huge, seven hundred plus page book for the big screen is an almost impossible task. Those who’ve read it and loved it can’t help but feel cheated by a film adaptation. Chunks have to be cut, characters disappear and, worst of all, the ending might be tweaked or changed altogether. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin is one such book.
If screenwriter and director Akiva Goldsman had done to Winter’s Tale what Peter Jackson has done to the considerably shorter novel, The Hobbit, the film version would have surpassed the nine hour mark. The final result may be a heavily condensed version of the romantic fairy tale with a snow laden setting, but when you consider what Goldsman was up against, all things considered, his adaptation is quite admirable.
“What if the stars are not what we think?” asks a voice who we will later know as Beverly. “Magic is all around us,” she continues. “You just have to look.” The voice-over sets the mysterious yet dreamlike tone to the film. By the end of the film we’ll know exactly what she means.
Set in both 1916 and 2014 Manhattan – or a kind of fantasy version of the island – Winter’s Tale tells of the story of Peter Lake (Colin Farrell). When we first meet Peter he’s a thief on the run, chased by the evil Pearly Soames (a heavily Irish accented Russell Crowe). Pearly, we discover, has supernatural connections, not to mention a really bad temper, and he wants Peter at all costs. “You don’t quit me,” Pearly yells at Peter.
The magical, fairy tale element is introduced immediately. A white horse with invisible wings comes to Peter’s rescue and races by his pursuers, outrunning Pearly and his henchmen. In the book the horse had the name of Athansor, but the film never mentions it. What follows is a chance meeting between Peter and the beautiful but ailing Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay from TV’s Downton Abbey). They’re soul mates, destined to be forever with each other, but their time, at least in 1916, is going to be short-lived. Beverly has Tuberculosis, referred to here as Consumption, and she is going to die. “If you don’t make love to me now,” she tells Peter, “No one ever will.” “That’s exactly what I’ll do, then,” replies Peter, forever the obliging gentleman.
To explain further is to drown in detail, the kind that needs to be seen rather than written. Beverly dies – not a plot spoiler, we know it’s going to happen – but being the kind of tale that it is we know she will also live on, and Peter will cross time to find her and hopefully reunite.
That fairytale look continues throughout the film. Caleb Deschanel’s well framed and solid cinematography is exquisite throughout, the kind that’s a joy to watch. It perfectly captures the magical, picture book look that comes when wintry snow silently covers everything. When Peter arrives at the country estate of Beverly’s family, with the twinkly night time stars shining down on a quiet, snow covered country estate setting, there’s a feeling of Narnia about the whole thing.
With her long, flowing locks of red hair and her handsome good looks, Jessica Brown Findlay embodies Beverly in the way that Disney might have cast her in a live version of one of its princess heroines. There’s little time between Peter meeting her and him falling in love, and it’s not difficult to understand why; she’s enchantingly beautiful.
Russell Crowe’s villain is a comic book, single note performance, but it’s what the character needs. His Pearly is the more evil, black hearted version of Javert in Les Miserables without the singing; a miserable man with one goal – to find, capture and kill Peter for leaving his employ, and with the assistance of Lucifer himself (a surprise though miscast appearance by Will Smith) Pearly is going to span more than a century to do it.
Colin Farrell, with his impish, bad-boy reputation, captures the likable essence of what Peter Lake is all about, but the fact that he speaks with an Irish accent is odd. Yes, we know the actor is Irish, and yes, the character of Pearly Soames – with whom Peter spent a great deal of time – is Irish, but the man was found as an infant in New York which is where he was raised by local Bayman. You speak the accent of your peers, not your elders, and Peter, growing up in New York, would have developed an American one.
However, the more lyrical tone to an Irish accent, spoken opposite Beverly’s cultured English one with a backdrop of calm, wintry nights in New York, completes the fairy tale setting. If you tried to make logic out of any aspect of the film, in the end, nothing would make sense and the meaning behind why the stars in the sky are not what we think would simply be silly. Give the film fifteen minutes or so. By that time you should know whether it’s working for you or not.
For those who loved the lengthy Helprin novel, know going in that the film is heavily condensed. For everyone else with no prior knowledge, put logic and even cynicism aside and allow yourself to be smitten in the same way that Peter is when he first meets Beverly. You never know, you might actually be charmed.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 129 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)