Winter's Tale

WINTER’S TALE. Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly. Directed by Akiva Goldsman. 118 minutes. Rated M (Violence and sex scene).

Despite its talented cast and crew, Winter’s Tale can’t escape the overwhelming sense that it’s derived from an infinitely richer source material.

Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a small-time larcenist in 19th century New York City. Whilst on the run from his deadly former boss, he enters a seemingly deserted house and encounters the beautiful but terminally ill Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). Naturally in a film released just in time for Valentine’s Day, true love ensues (along with some mild nudity and an erotic scene). Their love is so miraculous that – following Penn’s death – Lake somehow finds himself still wandering in present day New York, and the battle fought between good and evil using miracles is still raging around him.

Adapted from Mark Helprin’s bestselling novel and directed by talented screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, this film comprises stretches of sparkling dialogue linked by confusing and unexplained plot developments. One may find themselves nodding in agreement when a character questions Lake in the third act: “What’s going on here?” Indeed, when the plot moves to encompass spirit animals and time travelling miracles, it feels as though a prior reading of the book is a must to fully grasp what is going on. Although big questions of “God and the devil, angels and demons” are thrown around, there is a distinct lack of structure in which these ideas can be explored. The concept of faith is introduced yet never properly developed outside of the notion that each person is capable of miracles, but the forces of evil fight to stop them from occurring. It’s a real shame that the script fails to develop a sensible narrative, as the ideas briefly introduced are intriguing and the remaining majority of the filmmaking on display is highly competent.

The cast uniformly shines. Despite a distractingly awful haircut, Farrell turns up his Irish charm and delivers a fine line between wry humour and real heartbreak. He loses his way occasionally when the romance really takes centre stage, but the 37 year-old Farrell tries hard to make his relationship with the 24 year-old Findlay work. Russell Crowe, as Farrell’s demonic pursuer Pearly Soames, is clearly having a great time, hamming it up with an ever-twitching, hair-trigger rage and an admirable Irish brogue. Crowe dishes out most of the film’s snatches of sudden but largely bloodless violence with relish, and creates a truly detestable villain. The true revelation however is young English actress Findlay, whose incandescent presence onscreen almost makes the miracles on display feel perfectly sensible. Her breathless displays of love throughout her tragic demise from tuberculosis make it a strong candidate for a traditional Valentine’s ‘dinner and a movie’ date choice. Without wanting to spoil anything, an unexpected cameo from Will Smith rounds out a strong ensemble.

Elsewhere, handsomely wrought period details from Production Designer Naomi Shohan are strongly complemented by Caleb Deschanel’s lush cinematography, and the movements through time are rendered distinctly for the audience. However, what first-time director Goldsman tellingly fails to grasp is that the mechanics of Lake’s inter-temporal jaunts require more than visual signposting; they need adequate explanation, for which the audience is left wanting.

The lack of logic is pronounced, and it detracts immeasurably from the proceedings. There is evidence here of the best intentions, but none of a coherent finished result. Winter’s Tale wants to explore the concept of miracles, but what it really needs is a miracle to make sense of the proceedings.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

Out February 13 2014 .

Sony.