The tagline for Winter’s Tale, boldly displayed on the poster, reads, “This is not a true story. It’s a love story.” If you see the film, you will understand that this is one of the most honest taglines ever used in an ad campaign, and therefore one of the best. Apart from the fact that it encapsulates what the film is about in just two sentences, it serves as a guide for those of you that may not know beforehand how the film should be approached. Allow me to explain it to you. You must not be a realist or a cynic. You must accept that it uses sentiment and melodrama to appeal directly to the emotions. You cannot allow yourself to apply real-world logic to any of its 118 minutes. If you don’t fit this criteria, it would be best if you simply saw another movie. It has nothing to say that you would want to hear.
The film, adapted from the novel by Mark Helprin, marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who has penned films for the likes of Joel Schumacher and Ron Howard to varying degrees of success. In his willingness to embrace, without any hesitance or apology, everything that flies in the face of reason and common sense – whirlwind romances, miracles, destiny, angels and demons, the link between stars and human souls – he has made a film that’s innocent yet audacious. Unlike Nicholas Sparks adaptations, which tend to be underhanded in their emotional manipulation, this movie admirably puts everything on the table right at the start. If it were an actor in musical theater, it would be cast in La Cage aux Folles, and it would belt out the showstopper “I Am What I Am” with sobering authenticity.
The film, set in wintertime New York City, is divided into two segments, one taking place in 1918, the other taking place now. Despite the nearly century-long gap in time, each segment centers on the same character. This would be Irishman Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), born to immigrant parents who were forced to abandon him when turned away at America’s gates. Despite his innate understanding of mechanical equipment, he grew up to become a career criminal specializing in thievery. His raising is only vaguely alluded to, but we know he became affiliated with an Irish gang under the leadership of the scarfaced Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Now Peter has become a target, as Pearly has renounced his humanity, becoming a demon in service of Satan, here called the Judge (Will Smith). Pearly’s mission is to prevent miracles from taking place.
I think I need to elaborate. Within us all, the story explains, there exists a miracle destined to be shared with only one other person; if the forces of darkness intervene at the right time, we fail to meet our destinies, and when that happens, our deaths will not result in our souls becoming the stars in the night sky. Peter’s destiny, the ironically-named Pearly has discovered, is linked with a young woman named Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), who’s slowly succumbing to tuberculosis – or, as it was known in the early twentieth century, consumption. In the best display of a head-over-heels romance since James Cameron’s Titanic, Peter and Beverly instantly fall in love after the former breaks into the latter’s upscale home with the intent of robbing it. There’s no rhyme or reason for it. It just happens.
There isn’t much I can say about the present-day section of the story without giving away crucial plot points of the 1918 section. Let it suffice to say that Beverly’s pure, virginal love has magically kept Peter alive all this time and has prevented him from aging. Let it also be known that, when Pearly beat Peter and tossed him over the Brooklyn Bridge and left him for dead all those years ago, Peter lost his memory; all he has is a vision of a girl with flowing red hair, which is no more explained than how Peter successfully lived what appears to have been a penniless existence for over ninety years. Finally, let it be said that, without a single narrative warning, Peter meets a food columnist named Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), whose daughter, Abby (Ripley Sobo), is sick with cancer. This alerts Pearly, who continues to do Satan’s dirty work.
Since this is not a rational movie, one need not have a rational defense for it. There is, indeed, something rather refreshing and even beautiful in the way it heedlessly relies on the outlandish and improbable in order to propel itself forward. It even goes so far as to include a guardian angel in the form of a white horse, which is capable of sprouting wings of light and flying majestically over an iced-over lake. There’s also something to be said for its spiritual slant on relationships and life itself, given the fact that we live in an age of profound skepticism and disillusionment. Films like Winter’s Tale show more courage than they’re given credit for; they’re made and released with the knowledge that most audiences will find them ludicrous. There are times when a movie doesn’t have be anything more than what it is, and this is one of them.
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Warner Bros. Pictures