By the end of Winter's Tale, I was thinking about Alissa Wilkinson's review of About Time. The stories aren't very similar (except for the time traveling thing). But the trailers for both flicks sold the story as a rom-com when they were much more than that.
So much so that I thought I really wasn't going to enjoy Winter's Tale. The poster seemed best suited for the cover of a paperback novel. But though I didn't love the movie either, it reminded me in some ways of Stardust (based on the Neil Gaiman book) and The Golden Compass (without the controversially dark allegorical content), both shimmering magic-adventure films that I enjoyed watching once or twice.
Written and directed by Hollywood standard Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, I Am Legend) and ostensibly based on the Mark Helprin novel, the story follows Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a young rogue in early 20th century New York who falls in love with a dying heiress (Jessica Brown Findlay). That's about all I can say without giving away anything for those who haven't also read the novel.
But following this first 45 minutes of period piece romancing, it gets that whole GoldenCompass/Stardust vibe. Animals or small children can be "spirit guides." Each person has "a miracle inside them." When you die, your soul floats up to the heavens and becomes a star. And Findlay, shining in a role perfectly suited for the Downton Abbey damsel, delivers a series of celestial, sparkly lines about light, love, and the miracles in us all.
Instructions in order to enjoy this fairy tale: treat it like that—a fairy tale. The story is light, even with a demon soul-crusher (Russell Crowe) trying to kill the good guys, obliterate miracles, and basically destroy all the things. It's not a romance after the first 45 minutes is over, and by the end, you're shown that the "true love" in the film was not supposed to be romance first and foremost (shades of Frozen, anyone?). Love conquers all in a snow-globe-ish New York City, even if it takes 100 years to do it. When it ends, you might even "aww."
The only problem is, the story seems to think of itself more highly than it ought. It's got plenty of magic, snow, and swashbuckling, but it sticks when it gets to dialogue. When Farrell romances Findlay, it's not bad (and it doesn't take long). But when he's talking to his horse (with arguably equal fervor) or throwing snarky I'm-not-scared comments at the demon hunter, just check out for a bit and you'll be happier.
And there's a couple more scenes to ignore as well. The film has one relatively modest sex scene, the end of which is the movie's most awkward moment. Banter and one-liners that try to be funny are not—humor flails and fails in this film, making its charm a little more difficult to achieve.
But then there's the scenes with the devil.
If you wondered what the heck Russell Crowe was doing in here as a hellion with a vendetta and a voice like Captain Barbosa, you'll cringe and possibly choke when you see Will Smith show up. To be blunt: it doesn't work.
I like hopeful films, especially when it's not the I-hope-I-get-swept-off-my-feet type of thing. Winter's Tale is sweet and simple when it's all said and done, and it walked a fairly neat line between two "true" kinds of love. The big problem it may have is finding an audience. With the lack of fun, the randomly freaky scenes, and a cast that doesn't quite make it mesh, it's really not a movie for kids—or dates.
Winter's Tale is rated PG-13 for "violence and some sexuality." Crowe's face bursts into what looks like snarling lava every once in awhile. He kills a waiter at a pub and uses the blood to draw a picture (a picture that ends up being important to the plot, but it's still gross). Two characters have sex. A character dies. There's violence with swords, fists and guns. As the devil, Will Smith's jaw opens wider than it should while he's yelling at his minion, while the shadow behind him becomes a billowing cloud of smoke with glowing eyes.
Taylor Lindsay is a writer in New York City. She was Christianity Today Movies' fall intern.