What’s your threshold for schmaltz? That’s not an idle question; it’s something you might want to seriously consider before seeing the supernatural romantic fantasy Winter’s Tale. Because depending on your answer, you may find yourself either stifling a sniffle by the film’s end credits or rolling your eyes and groaning. There isn’t much middle ground.
Based on Mark Helprin’s beloved 1983 novel, and adapted with a liberal dollop of sap by Oscar-winning screenwriter-turned-director Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), Winter’s Tale never figures out what kind of story it wants to tell. Is it a three-hankie tearjerker about the redemptive power of love? Is it a dark sci-fi thriller pitting the age-old forces of heaven and hell against each other? Or is it a kid-friendly fairy tale replete with a dashing Prince Charming astride a flying white stallion? Miraculously, and unfortunately, the answer is: all of the above.
After a sepia-tinted prologue set in 1895 — when a baby boy is placed on a raft and pushed Moses-like toward Manhattan by his immigrant parents, who are denied entry to America — the film flashes forward to 1916. There the boy, now named Peter Lake and played as a grown-up by the seemingly ageless Colin Farrell, is a quick-witted thief on the run from his sadistic boss, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, with a mouth-to-ear scar and an ill-advised growly leprechaun brogue). With the help of that mystical white steed, Peter escapes from Pearly and his bowler-hatted goons long enough to break into the mansion of a newspaper magnate (William Hurt), where he meets the man’s dying tubercular daughter (Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil, Jessica Brown Findlay) and falls deeply, madly, hopelessly in love. Apart from the obvious question of why directors are so fond of killing off Brown Findlay, the film asks: Can Peter’s passion miraculously save the auburn-haired beauty from her cruel death sentence? And if not in this lifetime, then what about the next?
If it sounds like I’m being intentionally vague about the film’s cornball Snow White-meets-Boardwalk Empire plot, that’s because its fantastical twists, decades-spanning time leaps, and head-scratching cameos (hey there, Will Smith!) will be a big chunk of its allure for the hopeless romantics in the house. Me, I was never able to go with it. Which is a shame. Considering his heady pop scripts for The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons, Goldsman clearly understands how to grapple with ethereal topics like destiny and miracles. But here he seems to be stringing together one preposterously hokey scenario after another. His wisest move was casting Farrell, who, much as he did in Saving Mr. Banks, knows how to put aside his cynicism and sell sentimental material with conviction. It’s no coincidence that Winter’s Tale is being released on Valentine’s Day, when our resistance to schmaltz is at its weakest. But do that special someone in your life a favor and splurge on some flowers and a nice heart-shaped Russell Stover box instead. C