Let’s talk about an acclaimed, beloved book adapted into a 2014 movie that centers on an epic romance torn apart by terminal illness.
Like The Fault in Our Stars, the main relationship in Winter’s Tale is hindered by disease. Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) is diagnosed with consumption and past her expected expiration date when she meets Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), an orphaned thief who falls in love with her at first sight.
There’s a reason that The Fault in Our Stars will remain the undisputed champion of 2014’s weepy romances. Unlike its contemporary counterpart, Winter’s Tale also incorporates layers upon layers of unwieldy fantastical elements. These are mostly filtered through Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), a demonic character who runs an Adjustment Bureau-like syndicate of villains endeavoring to keep Lake and Penn from sharing their miraculous love.
Winter’s Tale focuses on Lake and Soames’ conflict in two timelines: one in 1916, when Lake meets Penn, and another in the present, after Lake experiences an unexpected time-shift without aging. Add in demons, devils, gemstones that refract light into maps, and a winged horse that shows up to protect Lake, and it’s clear there is a substantial amount of fantasy involved.
The love story should be the heart of Winter’s Tale, but the movie is frequently caught up in the more supernatural elements of the story, and everything is consumed in its spiritual mumbo-jumbo. For example, at least two different characters are pressed into service to explain that Lake’s horse is “actually a dog”—specifically Athansor, the “Dog of the East”—that just sometimes takes the form of a horse. This information never comes to bear in the rest of the entire movie, as Athansor never appears as a dog; it’s just magical nonsense.
It’s not just background nonsense, either; the movie goes out of its way to play up its spiritual angle. Light and its mystical properties, for example, is a major theme of the movie. Instead of just being a recurring visual motif, though, Goldsman makes sure the light is always front-and-center. This results in something onscreen twinkling right before an awe-inspiring event happens. It’s a constant primer that the audience doesn’t actually need.
The magical elements of the story come at the expense of developing real characters. By the time a second set of major characters is introduced in the 2014 timeline, Winter’s Tale doesn’t have enough time left to get invested in them as people. Instead, they become just another set of mystical objects in Lake’s quest for miracles.
There’s also a difference between asking an audience to believe in miracles and asking them to turn off the thinking and reasoning parts of their brains entirely. Unfortunately, Winter’s Tale requires the latter far too much. It’s one thing to say that Lake experiences a nearly century-long time skip without aging. That’s magic.
It’s quite another to fudge the ages of other, non-magical characters around that time jump, specifically one character who should be a centenarian and somehow isn’t. That isn’t miraculous; it’s just fudging the details. In one of the two unfocused behind-the-scenes features included on the commentary-less Blu-ray, Goldsman all but admits the timelines don’t make sense. “Don’t ask what year it is!” he barks in a talking-head interview.
Similarly, the movie never explains how Lake acquires his romantic Irish accent. Lake’s parents are clearly of Eastern European origin, as they attempt to enter the country on a boat with Cyrillic writing on it. When they can’t, a Native American community in Brooklyn takes the credit for finding the abandoned Lake and raising him. It’s possible he picks it up from Soames along the way, but Lake definitely explains that he doesn’t meet Soames until he’s old enough to be a pickpocket. Winter’s Tale believes these details don’t matter, so long as everything is bathed in a glowing light.
It’s not that there are zero pleasures to be had in watching that light circle its way around two swooning characters. One of the movie’s main pleasures is how it looks. Goldsman explains he shot on film, and much of it on location. He uses muted colors to add a storybook, fairytale quality to turn-of-the-century New York City. Some lovely images result, such as a snowy, starlit walk in the woods, which shows how Penn’s fever (and racing heart) are enough to melt the ice around her footprints.
Farrell, actually, is a pleasure to watch on his own. In one of the interviews included on the Blu-ray, Goldsman describes him has having “promiscuous chemistry”, the ability to forge a connection with any scene partner, be it woman, man, or winged horse. When watching the film, it’s easy to see that Goldsman’s statement rings true. (The Irish accent, though problematic in origin, doesn’t hurt his onscreen charisma.)
Watching Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay is almost enough—the love story between Lake and Penn does have the epic, timeless, physics-defying qualities that the movie is going for. It’s a shame it’s buried beneath so much head-scratching nonsense.