New film: Winter’s Tale

Winter’s Tale
Directed by Akiva Goldsman

There’s a lot for frequent movie viewers to think about in “Winter’s Tale” – apart from just the film and the story itself.

It’s a story that takes place in and around New York City, in a version of our world in which magic exists and has a major role in human lives. Or at least it would have more of a major role, if dark forces weren’t attempting to block miracles and thus restrict the scope of human hope.

Colin Farrell plays Peter Lake, an orphan who has had a rough upbringing in a criminal street gang. His street-life backstory is like that of “Oliver Twist,” only with a far darker version of Fagin. The difference being that here, the criminal gang leader, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), is a minion of the devil, charged with diminishing hope and promoting chaos. After a disagreement, Lake is running from Soames and making a few last robbery scores before leaving town, when he unexpectedly meets the beautiful young Beverly Penn.

She’s played by Jessica Brown Findlay, recognizable to many as Lady Sybil from TV”s “Downton Abbey,” and seemingly destined to play the tragic love interests of men below her social status. Beverly has consumption – a condition depicted in the film somewhat like the opposite of the Princess’s condition in “Frozen”  (she’s constantly so overheated that she sleeps in a tent on the roof to keep her fever in check) and with very little apparent concern for any level of contagion.

Soames is concerned that Peter’s love might save Beverly (remember, there’s magic afoot) and he’s obsessed with stopping that from happening. And this is where the story takes off and heads in a direction not really hinted at in trailers.

The story is really quite adult, not in a graphic sense, but in a non-fairy tale kind of way – and it won’t appeal to everybody. The negative remarks I heard from filmgoers at an early screening weren’t criticisms of the acting or production standards, they were simple dismissals of the plot developments – i.e., from people who quite simply didn’t like the story they were being told.

And that’s a shame because the story is being told quite well. The problem is that people don’t know quite what it is that they’re coming to. This isn’t a classic Valentine’s Day date movie kind of movie – there’s more going on and if one is looking for a happy ending, one has to be open to quite how that concept might be interpreted.

That said, there came a point where I found myself watching the film in a manner I’m fairly sure wasn’t intended. This is a film that’s generally well written (with a couple of odd issues) and well acted – and it has high production standards. It looks like a film, with period components, that wouldn’t seem entirely out of place during the height of award season. Except that the story being told is more like those associated with teen romance novels and, in some respects, with some horror and fantasy projects.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the awfulness of “I, Frankenstein” – although that was a film that was bad enough to be amusing in its own coincidentally unintended way. The odd thing is that the two stories have quite a lot in common, despite the intended audiences likely being very different. At their respective cores, they’re stories about men who can’t easily die, from violent backgrounds, who find love and a new sense of self against the backdrop of a timeless battle between demons and angels (or angel substitutes).

While continuing to watch the film play out, I found myself wondering what “I, Frankenstein” might have been like with this cast and production approach. Or what teen-oriented films like the “Twilight” series might have been like with some heavier hitters involved. They’re not all analogous of course – there’s a great desire with potential franchise films, especially with young casts, to employ relatively inexpensive actors on multiple film contracts, to prevent the later films from becoming too costly if they’re successful and contract negotiations escalate. It’s easier with a stand-alone film to up the ante a little, employ an A-list cast and hope those names will also draw an audience. Not that there haven’t been A-list supernatural fantasies before (think “City of Angels,” which was itself a remake) but the tone is different here.

The problem with “Winter’s Tale” is that it ends up with impressive components in support of a story that a lot of people are simply likely to find unappealing. This is exacerbated by its release date and the tone of the trailers. The story structure is somewhat unconventional and more complicated than most date movies and I suspect it would have performed more successfully at the box office and with critics if it had been presented differently, on a different weekend.

I actually quite enjoyed that unconventionality, and thought the story worked quite well – but it’s not going to satisfy the uncomplicated “happily ever after” crowd. I also enjoyed pondering the nature of the production and how it compared to the more typical, low-rent demons vs. angels projects. However, if it performs as poorly with movie goers as it has with critics, it’s unlikely we’ll see many more like this.

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February 20, 2014 | 8:36 PM

Film does not due the book justice.

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