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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Winter’s Tale



U.S.: Akiva Goldsman (2014)


Any time you see a movie based on a hugely popular, critically hosannaed, densely populated epic romance  novel  like Mark Helprin‘s Winter‘s Tale — a prestige movie about endless, undying love boasting such first-class actors as Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, William Hurt and Eva Marie Saint — and the picture gets stolen  by a flying horse, you know the show is in some kind of trouble.

That splendid horse-thievery is executed upon writer-director Akiva Goldsman’s very ambitious film of  Helprin’s cult classic by  a CGI-enhanced animal actor playing an equine character named Athansor. Athansor is played by a real looker named Listo — and  Listo has the best part and maybe even the best lines. Actually, the horse  has no lines, not even a neigh, but that  gives him the advantage on, say, co-star Russell Crowe, who, as the fiendish Irish-American New York gang boss Pearly Soames, only seems to have no lines, because a lot of them are nearly incomprehensible. (Or were to me.)

Anyway, not to make any more wisecracks about a film project toward which I feel some sympathy (I like the idea of movies based on hugely popular, critically hosannaed novels, the more epic and romantic the better),  Athansor had this show pretty much handed to him. The magnificent white steed is a very attractive key member of the very attractive cast, in a picture, gorgeously shot by  horse-photography expert Caleb Deschanel, who lit, ravishingly, The Black Stallion ), and in which most of the actors and actresses are beautiful or incomprehensible, as is much of the movie, and much of the plot flies off in all directions and looks if it needs some oats. (Sorry.)

Winter’s Tale — based on Helprin’s 700-page-plus science fiction/fantasy epic romance by that  very prolific and prized screenwriter Goldsman (an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind) — treats the story (or what’s left of it),  with a straight-faced reverence that has “labor of love” and “would-be classic” stamped all over it — and you can only wish that it were either, instead of another critical joke-mill.

The movie is set in a century‘s worth of New York City, seen in the years 1895, 1916 and in the present day, 2014 — and it revolves around Farrell’s character, a feisty, pretty boy burglar named Peter Lake, who, as an infant in 1895  is tossed and set adrift  in a little floating crib dropped from an ocean liner in the waters near Ellis Island, after his sick parents are refused entry by the Ellis Island doctors, and lose admittance to America and its dreams. Somehow the child survives this dubious treatment — tossed like some little pseudo-Moses to the waves on a little boat emblazoned “City of Justice” — and he’s rescued by bog-men on the shore, including the colorful bog-philosopher Humpstone John, played by that fine Native American actor Graham Greene (not the writer) in what has seemingly become a bog-cameo.

Some 21 years later,  Peter, a good-looking boy-o with  a mournful Irish eloquent sweet-thuggish air about him,  has become a notorious burglar, and has also messed up and incurred the wrath of the fiendish derby-hatted Pearly and his gang of similarly derby-hatted nasties. Peter is living in the rafters of Grand Central Station, and when Pearly, with his miscreants, catches up with him in the street, and starts making incomprehensible threats, Athansor the heroic horse appears out of nowhere, tosses his magnificent mane, and kneels with horsy grandeur before Peter.

Peter hops aboard, and Athansor  leaps over two extremely high iron gates, and over Pearly and all his surly, menacing crew, as if they were a mere steeplechase barrier. Oddly, Pearly and his boys, instead of saying something like “Holy shit! That horse just jumped over an extremely high iron fence and all of us menacing thugs,” simply gaze after the fleeing horse and rider, petulantly. There will be an explanation of sorts for this later on, but none for why Peter, throughout the entire movie,  persists in calling Athansor  (his name in the book) “Horse.” (Couldn’t he at least have called him “Horsie?”)

This is only the first of Athansor’s amazing rides — usually undertaken while rescuing Peter and some beautiful woman from the enraged Pearly. Later on the Horse leaps off a wintry cliff to an icy shore far below with Peter and his great consumptive dying love and rich man’s daughter Beverly Penn (Brown-Findlay of Downton Abbey), aboard. Then they ride, boldly ride, to her father’s magical rich man’s lakefront house, where magic and tragedy await. Still later, in 2014 or maybe 2013, or in any case, the present era,  the dauntless animal leaps off a Manhattan skyscraper with Peter, and a fetchingly pretty New York journalist named Virginia Gamely (fetchingly played by Jennifer Connelly).

Both young women accept these flights with remarkable equanimity, as if they were  doing nothing more dangerous than stepping aboard a slightly sped-up merry-go-round –which either means that these ladies are made of sterner stuff than Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane,  or that, in this particular alternate universe, there are a lot of winged white horses jumping off  buildings, sprouting transparent CGI wings and flying off with lovable burglars and lovely ladies and adorable children into the great hither and yon. Or more likely, that you just can’t faze a New Yorker.

That includes, I guess, the notion of we the audience (New Yorkers or not) not being fazed when the terminally ill (apparently) and fetchingly beautifully  Beverly responds to Peter’s break-in and prospective burgle of her and her rich newspaper magnate dad Isaac Penn’s (William Hurt) lavish digs in the West ‘80s — by falling undyingly, endlessly in love, and he (endlessly, undyingly) in love with her. The blissful two are locked together in the endless undeath of their great winter’s tale of eternal infatuation, after only one brief but spectacularly photographed roll in the hay to whet their endless love and heartbreak and renewal and redemption for a century hence, when the now amnesiac but still young-looking  Peter, after  bashing into a cloud bank, pops up in 2014 (or whatever), where cute little McKayla Twiggs as young Willa, darling tot of the Penn household,  has grown up into still-beautiful Eva Marie Saint as the adult Willa , the apparently 100-year old editor of the New York Sun, Isaac‘s still-thriving old rag. Should this adult  Willa be introduced to the similarly incredible Manoel de Oliveira, the 104-year-old but still active Portuguese writer-director  of the classic film romances The Satin Slipper and  Ill-Fated Love? And should Oliveira be offered Winter‘s Tale II, with Pearly now babbling incomprehensibly in Portuguese?

There’s a Horatio Alger nuttiness so far to the story, which seems to be partly about the romance of capitalism. (Helprin is a young conservative grown old.) So now, with an explanation worthy of only a SPOILEER ALERT — in shaggy-haired hippie artist garb (the book was published in 1983, which explains a lot) — Peter will proceed to his endless, undying destiny, endlessly pursued still by the incomprehensible rage of Pearly Soames, and the evil, beautiful perfect diction of Pearly’s suave satanic boss, (Here Comes) The Judge (Will Smith) — with endless love in Peter’s undying heart, with endless hate in Pearly’s, with Beverly unendingly on Peter’s mind , endlessly secure in the knowledge that no one will ever dare compare Mark Helprin to Nicholas Sparks, and that, no matter what fresh violent improbability ensues, Athansor the winged white horse will be there to get Peter’s back, fly down and whisk him and some beautiful lady away into the great hither and yon — endlessly, undyingly.

“Winter’s Tale” is a book I’ve always intended to read. Now I wonder if I’ll ever get to it– though to be fair some admirers  of the novel have testified that it’s been compromised and debauched and that the book isn’t like this. It seems like a movie where the makers were trying to be faithful to something , not out of purely (or impurely) mercenary motives, but out of , let’s face it, love and admiration. So Winter’s Tale is blessed with every good element and every good intention, and with all the high romantic aspirations of bringing quality and romance and literacy and poetry and endless, undying love to the screen — and instead, it’s been turned into a one trick pony and a weird if occasionally beautiful slumgullion of a would-be epic surreal  love story, with occasional howlers.

Has this movie made it less likely that anyone will now bring a new version of long literary classics like Don Quixote or Finnegan’s Wake to the screen? Probably not. But instead, are we condemned to a cinema whose primary products are  multi-gazillion dollar versions — possibly perfectly decent ones  — of comic books or young adult novels or old TV shows? Endlessly? Undyingly? Incomprehensibly?

Akiva Goldsman has written some good movies (I Am Legend and A Beautiful Mind, which won Oscars for both Goldsman and Connelly, as well as the film itself) and some bad ones (Batman & Robin, which won George Clooney a lot of Batpans). But it’s safe to say he’ll never make another picture quite like Winter’s Tale, not even if Winter’s Tale II suddenly gets a big boost on Kickstarter. Or will he? Sometimes you can love a movie to death, and that’s probably what’s happened here. It’s  why a picture based on  a book many consider a modern classic, lovingly written and produced by Goldsman, gorgeously designed and shot, cast with wonderful actors, and made with such obvious devotion, seems like such a dud.

It’s possible that two hours is simply too short a span to tell a story like this.  Possibly Winter’s Tale, with those 700 pages of densely-constructed story material,  should have been a TV miniseries, or two movies. Or none. One thing is sure: It shouldn’t have been this movie. There’s only so much one poor horse can do.

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