Akiva Goldsman’s screenwriting résumé makes for curious reading. On the one hand, here we have someone who penned the Oscar-winning screenplay for A Beautiful Mind; on the flipside, he also helped write 1997’s Batman & Robin, widely regarded (with good reason) as one of the worst superhero films ever made. For his latest project – an adaptation of Mark Helprin’s beloved novel A New York Winter’s Tale – Goldsman takes on directorial duties for the first time in addition to writing and producing, and there’s little doubt as to which column this film resides.
The nonsensical narrative revolves around Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), an orphaned thief in 19th century New York who is on the run from his demonic mentor Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Seemingly cornered by Soames’ gang, Peter escapes with the assistance of a magical flying white horse (which he promptly dubs ‘Horse’). On his way out of town, Peter’s new partner in crime insists on robbing one last house whereupon he meets the consumptive Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), and they proceed to fall hopelessly in love with one another.
That’s about as logical at the story gets. Goldsman introduces one supernatural element after another, each one more incredulous than what preceded it, resulting in a film that’s increasingly incomprehensible. There is some exposition about miracles and the eternal struggle between good and evil, but when you’re dealing with something as complicated as magical realism, the rules need to be well-established and the explanations need to be crystal clear. Winter’s Tale fails on both counts.
Indeed, if suspension of disbelief was already difficult with scenes featuring a magical flying horse with a knack for impeccable timing, it’s near-impossible once the film flashes forward to 2014 and we’re asked to accept chance encounters with perfect strangers and impossible reunions (among many other farfetched happenings). There’s simply not enough care taken with the world-building, and if you’re not already on board with a film like this within the first twenty minutes, the remaining hour plus won’t change your mind.
In addition to Caleb Deschanel’s impressive cinematography, the acting is one of Winter’s Tale’s few saving graces. Crowe’s snarly, scenery chewing performance is by turns menacing and camp, but he’s easily the most fun to watch (not that that is a high bar to clear). Additionally, Findlay shares some great chemistry with Farrell, who gives it his all as our roguish protagonist. Much like another name actor who has an extended cameo that has to be seen to be believed, his recent run of films – Saving Mr. Banks excluded – haven’t been the strongest, and right now he needs the right role to give his career a boost. Sadly this is not it.
In recent years, more and more seemingly unfilmable novels have been making their way to the big screen. Whilst Life of Pi and others have risen above that label, A New York Winter’s Tale – itself dubbed unfilmable – can at best be described as an ambitious failure, and at worst a befuddling catastrophe. One can only hope this story works a lot better on page than on screen.