Winter's Tale (2014)

Genres - Drama, Mystery  |   Sub-Genres - Romantic Drama, Supernatural Drama  |   Release Date - Feb 14, 2014 (USA)  |   Run Time - 129 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - PG13
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Review by Perry Seibert

Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) apparently asked every actor who owed him a favor to appear in his directorial debut, an adaptation of Mark Helprin's fantasy romance novel Winter's Tale. Ironically, while he made something that looks like a classic Hollywood love story, it turns out that the movie's biggest problem is its screenplay.

The story begins in New York City in 1895: A young mother and father are rejected from entering America for health reasons, but they manage to sneak their baby into the promised land. He grows up to become talented thief Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), who is being chased by the fiendish, powerful, and extravagantly scarred Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and his goons when he encounters a magical white horse that literally flies him away to safety.

The horse leads Peter to his next robbery target: an expensive home inhabited by the wealthy Isaac Penn (William Hurt) and his beautiful daughter Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), who suffers from consumption and has, at best, a couple of years to live. Everyone but Beverly is gone, and when Peter happens upon her, she's so excited to have a guest that she offers the thief a cup of tea. While sipping and chatting, they fall completely and totally in love with each other.

It turns out that Soames isn't your typical bad guy; he's a demon who crushes happiness and hope wherever he can find them, and soon makes it his absolute goal to keep this magical couple apart. However, after he apparently succeeds in this mission, Peter lands in modern-day New York with a profound case of amnesia. He befriends single mother Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), who helps him piece together his past and discover his true destiny.

Goldsman plays it very safe for his first time in the director's chair. He's crafted a very stately, handsome production -- you can imagine it playing regularly on Turner Classic Movies. Gifted cinematographer Caleb Deschanel gets across the film's cold palette without making it seem visually dull, and all the talk about stars and light gives him a chance to play with lens flares with such expressiveness that J.J. Abrams must be seething with jealousy.

The movie is deliberately paced so you can take in the intricate costumes and production design, as well as understand that Goldsman is going for an intimate epic. If that was his intention, casting Colin Farrell was a smart move. He's an actor who has retained his youthful charm, yet has grown into his very Irish looks in a way that suggests that melancholy is never far from the surface. He very much embodies the old-fashioned hero Goldsman wants, and he's well matched by Findlay, who reminds us of Beverly's physical fragility while her eyes telegraph the strength of her soul.

Although the movie more or less works for its first two acts, the modern-day section manages to bleed all of the charm out of the delicate tone Goldsman exerted so much effort to create, in large part because there are no surprises and no moments of happiness. It becomes a slow-paced march to resolve the plot, and Connelly's pretty but inexpressive face is a big step down from Findlay's engrossing eyes.

It's a credit to Goldsman's abilities as a director and producer that he surrounded himself with so much talent, but his movie never sweeps us away like a story about love transcending time and mortality should. Tastefulness has its place, but it's no substitute for passion.