[14 February 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
For anyone who’s been wondering what Will Smith has been up to lately, Winter’s Tale offers a partial answer. Turns out that he’s spent at least a few minutes since After Earth getting paid for playing Lucifer.
For this purpose, Smith appears a couple of times in what looks like a spotless, windowless basement where his primary dramatic effects are to first appear reading A Brief History of Time and then turn on and off a light bulb hanging from the ceiling. He goes on to lose his temper briefly, yelling at a whiny minion (“Do not speak to me of time!”) and showing off his fangs.
In another context, you might say that Smith is still working a little too hard to shed the Fresh Prince, or maybe to find ever new and weirder expansions of fantasy and science fiction. Maybe you might wonder for half a second, he’s working out a more effective strategy for counseling Justin Bieber.
But your musing will end, for as soon as Winter’s Tale steps out of Smith’s basement, so isolated, so abstract, and so strange, and back into the more crowded world of its romance, you see that he’s working too hard just as everyone else is working too hard… to make sense of what’s going on here.
As you do your own part in trying to understand, you may feel a bit pummeled. The story—based on the novel by Mark Helprin—has to do with a trans-century romance, sort of, an abandoned Russian-born baby who grows up, in 1915, to be Colin Farrell (complete with Irish brogue), a winged white horse, and a glorious redhead, all beleaguered by Lucifer’s most impassioned minion, Pearly (Russell Crowe). Pearly’s interest in Farrell’s Peter Lake might or might have to with his parents’ unfathomable choice to put his infant self on a model ship and drop him into New York Harbor, may have to do with the boy’s service to him as a whiz bang street thief, or it may have to do with his own evil inclinations, being a devil’s minion and all. When Peter for some reason rejects Pearly as a father figure, he’s hunted by minions of the minion and meets the white horse too.
That he names the white horse Horse suggests Peter lacks imagination or maybe just doesn’t have time for details. That he hands Horse off to be tended by Cecil (Maurice Jones) is even less clearly explained. Cecil might be an especially Magical Negro, cryptically left to mutter a knowing phrase or shake his head after Peter has moved out of a frame. But you never know the precise nature of the magic he’s running: is it counter-magic to Pearly and Lucifer? Is it divine, however secular? Is it of a piece with the Native American mentor, Humpback John (Graham Greene), who mentions spirit guides and miracles and souls, and reveal that he was the one who fished infant Peter out of the water in “that silly little boat.”
The movie’s filling in of this plot point is almost odd, given how little else it ties together. Among these unexplained elements is Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), luminous daughter of newspaper publisher Isaac (William Hurt). Not only is she beautiful and possessed of a British accent that somehow misses everyone else in her immediate family.
She’s also dying of consumption, which causes no coughing or other discomfort, though it does motivate more magic, increasing her (and so your) capacity to see digitized light effects or, as she puts it, to see that “everything is connected by light.” The disease may also motivate her attraction to Peter, as she announces on their first meeting, “I’m 21 and I’ve never been kissed on the mouth.” He looks briefly abashed, as much by her confession as by the fact that he’s just broken into her home in order to rob it, at least until he sees her playing piano in a gauzy white nightgown and so is transformed.
This transformation is of the sort you might expect: Peter, who’s “good at fixing things,” is moved to befriend her little sister Willa (Mckayla Twiggs), have a conversation with her father, and take her to her first and only dance. While Isaac worries that Peter’s not good enough for his ethereal daughter, the lad has a knack for making her smile and helping her to slow her heartbeat so her fever diminishes (the sign of this being that as she walks barefoot on the family’s always-wintry estate, her feet no longer melt the snow beneath them).
The lack of sense only redoubles when this part of the romance ends and the next begins, as Peter is transported into the present day, wandering NYC sidewalks, making chalk drawings of the back of Beverly’s red head and not remembering his own name (much less the fact that he’s 120 years old). He begins to piece it together when he meets a reporter, Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), single mother of a red-haired daughter (Ripley Sobo) who is afflicted with what might be considered the 21st century’s signature illness, cancer. Peter more or less invades their story, which won’t matter to you because you nothing about it except that Peter invades it, compelled by his affinity for pale, ailing girls. That he convinces Virginia Horse is a viable means of transportation might be his greatest fix.
Now, if he could only help Will Smith out of that basement.