Despite its wintry landsacape, Akiva Goldsman’s film of Mark Helprin’s book, Winter’s Tale, warms the heart and takes hold of the mythic imagination. The film, a supernatural romance, is unabashed in its nostalgia and sentiment, yet is succeeds on the merits of the cast and on the exquisite fantasy world it conjures.
The story of Irish immigrant, Peter Lake, whose adventures continue through his two incarnations across more than a century, is a quest for a miracle, a search for a love which transcends time. That journey pits him against the forces of evil and challenges him to defy death in order to affirm life and love. Larger-than-life metaphysical themes and passions call for a good measure of suspension of disbelief and sympathetic characters to make them flesh.
In this, the film succeeds admirably casting Colin Farrell as Peter Lake and Jessica Brown Findlay as his doomed beloved, Beverly. Farrell has just the right cheek for the street-wise thief at the same time that he possesses the soulful intensity and sensitivity to convey Peter’s transformation through love. He is dashing in the big romantic scenes, poignant in the tragic ones, and delightfully insouciant and understated in some of the plot’s absurdities. His talent for irony goes a long way in selling the fantasy elements of the tale and adds weight and balance to the tender moments.
Jessica Brown Findlay is a Pre-Raphaelite vision, hauntingly frail and beautiful, pulsing with a quiet passion. Russell Crowe plays Pearly Somes, Peter Lake’s demonic nemesis, with scene-chewing relish. His thick Irish brogue and throaty voice remind of the Godfather, and with his scarred face and maniacal manner, he makes this monster a classic villain. Will Smith as Lucifer/The Judge adds color to the conflict.
William Hurt gives an incisive and touching performance as Beverly’s father, Isaac Penn. Jennifer Connelley is a sweet and sympathetic 21st century love interest, and young Mckayla Twiggs makes an affecting little Willa. Graham Greene adds dignity and ancient wisdom to his portrayal of Humpstone John. In her brief appearance, Eva Marie Saint makes an incandescent aged Willa, who connects the mystery’s dots.
Any discussion of the cast would be remiss not to mention the absolutely remarkable equine actor who plays “Horse,” the touchingly human Spirit Guide with the wings and soul of Pegasus. In addition to the white horse’s mesmerizing beauty, one marvels at the animal’s camera savvy charm and intelligence.
Much of the appeal of the movie, however, has to do with the mythic landscape which director Goldsman and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have created. Filmed on location in New York’s Grand Central Station, at the Brooklyn Bridge, on the Lower East Side and Upper West Side, as well as at the Gothic Revival Tarrytown mansion of Lyndhurst, the cinematography succeeds in seamlessly depicting these places across the span of years from 1916-2014. Digital effects are imperceptibly grafted onto reality, transforming the entire ambiance of the film into heightened reality. The dark, gritty Manhattan streets are menacing; the baroque grandeur of Grand Central is majestic; the towering Palisades above the icy Hudson River are panoramic, and Lyndhurst with its flickering gaslights, snowy forests, crystalline fairy bower (the bed where a kiss elicits rebirth) is a breathtaking wonderland.
All this goes a long way to holding the viewer in thrall, for in such a magical place everything is possible. As in the Shakespeare play from which the film takes its name, enduring love can work miracles, bringing redemption and rebirth to a world frozen in sorrow. In Goldsman’s movie, light is the thawing agent – the light of the stars, the positive kinetic kinetic energy of the universe. The panoply of constellations twinkling above signifies not only the realms of eternal existence, but also the warm light of undying human love.