An eye-roller of a feature film, Winter’s Tale is exactly the type of movie that is frustrating to watch because you can see how it could be done well and appeal to everyone. It’s based on a 1983 novel, it has a strong cast, it contains true love, time travel, good vs. evil, and a magical horse. How can you mess that up? Well, you make it a vapid, uninspiring slog that focuses shallow characters, a poor mix of real-world and fairy-tale logic, an unbelievable romance, and a mess of a story.
The film stars Colin Farrell as a career burglar named Peter Lake. The year is 1916, the place is Manhattan, and he spends his time stealing from the rich and running away from a former associate, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Peter’s an orphan, which never actually matters, making us wonder why the first five minutes of the film are dedicated to showing us how he was abandoned. One day, he enters the house of the Penns, thinking it empty, only to run into a young woman cursed with the fever, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay). They instantly fall in love.
For a good chunk of the rest of the film, we just watch the two hang out and do nothing of consequence. We don’t learn about them, they don’t grow, and they don’t do anything interesting, either. I didn’t count how long this section lasts but I would wager it takes us to the 1:15:00 mark, if not later. What follows is given away in the trailer but I figure counts as a spoiler. Let’s just say that time travel takes Peter to 2014. If you want more than that, watch the trailer.
The voice-over narration — not delivered by our protagonist, because it doesn’t want to make sense at all — tells us squarely exactly what the film wants to be about. Its ultimate desire is to tell us that this story is just one of billions, that everyone is connected, and that the universe thinks we’re all special. Well, isn’t that a nice thing to tell an audience before sending them home? Destiny is a thing, miracles happen sometimes because of events hundreds of years in the making … and I can’t even try to make it sound compelling. It’s delivered as if nobody believes it to be true, but the book said it so the movie has to, too.
I tried to keep track of the number of times I rolled my eyes when watching Winter’s Tale. The number reached into the double digits. The story is unbelievable at the best of times. To explain why would involve revealing the entire plot, But in order to buy in to the absurd premise you have to be completely enamored with it from the start. And it’s only a very select audience who will be able to do that. The majority will laugh, smirk, and wish something better was on the screen.
Originally, I was inclined to say that, at the very least, Winter’s Tale is ambitious. And it is, to an extent. We have angels and demons, time travel, and central themes that, while not delivered at all in a subtle manner, at least have the potential to be interesting. But Winter’s Tale is pretty dull, especially in the second act. It opens fine, it concludes well, but its middle portion is so conventional, overlong, and boring.
The characters are too flat, the film is too uneventful, and there’s just nothing to the middle portion of the film. You know that you’re just waiting for Peter to travel into the future, which doesn’t help, but the film seems to delay this for as long as possible. The present day scenes feel rushed, in large part because too much time is taken up in the second act. Trim that down and allow for a more even, 50/50 split, and perhaps it doesn’t feel as long and boring as it is. There are no character to connect to and absolutely no reason to emotionally invest in the proceedings.
Winter’s Tale isn’t without merit. When set in the 1916s, the costumes and sets look fantastic. The film’s score, by Hans Zimmer, is beautiful. You might want to focus less on the dialogue and more on that — you’ll have a better experience. The special effects, when they are a focus, are fine. And all scenes but the fist fights — of which there are two — are shot very well.
The acting is also fine. Colin Farrell is still trying to establish himself as a straight man lead, and while I think he’s better in comedic or secondary roles, he works out fine here. Jessica Brown Findlay, the only English-accent person in her family for whatever reason, is lovely as the love interest. Russell Crowe is fun as the villain. Will Smith has a cameo that completely removes any and all immersion you might have once he shows up. Eva Marie Saint has a couple of scenes, here playing a 104-year-old woman who gets along on her own and runs a newspaper. Seriously.
Winter’s Tale is a mess and fails in most of the areas that count. Its story is unbelievable and not told very effectively, it’s completely unsubtle in telling us what point it wants to make, its characters are too shallow to make their romance work, and while it tries to mix the real with the supernatural, it doesn’t do it in a way that really makes sense. It looks good and has a great score, but it’s too long — particularly in its middle section — and too lacking to be worth seeing.