Sometimes when a popular novel is deemed unfilmable for three decades, it’s because it actually is. Case in point: Mark Helprin’s 1983 best-seller “Winter’s Tale,” which long-time producer-screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, directing for the first time, has finally managed to bring to the screen. But despite support from actors who have benefited from his past films (Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Will Smith), his debut feature winds up a dud of epic proportions, a fantasy that’s less magical than risible.
The plot is a loopy story of destiny and transcendent love set against the background of divine providence and the eternal struggle between the forces of light and darkness, or angels and demons if you prefer. The chief character is Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), whom we initially see in 2014 as he peruses a boxful of oddities high in the rafters of Grand Central Station. But we’re soon whisked back to 1895, when Peter’s father (a cameo by Matthew Bomer) is rejected at Ellis Island for entry to America; before being sent back to Europe, he and his wife decide to launch their infant son in a little boat toward shore in the hope he’ll be found and raised to make a life for himself in the New World. Apparently he was taken in by a kindly fellow we briefly encounter much later in the narrative (another cameo, by Graham Greene), but by the time he’s reached his twenties Peter has become a thief in the gang of brutal boss Pearly Soames (Crowe), who’s hunting him down for some offense.
In danger of imminent capture by Soames, Peter is saved by a white horse that takes him to the palatial abode of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), whose wealthy, widowed father Isaac (William Hurt) has just departed, with the rest of the family, for their winter lakeside retreat. Beverly has stayed behind because she’s consumptive, forced always to live in frigid rooms; but Peter doesn’t know that, and when he tries to rob the place he bumps into her while she’s pounding out Brahms on the piano. Within moments they’ve both fallen for each other. Unfortunately Soames—who turns out to be no mere gangster but a demon in direct service to Lucifer (Smith)—tries to abduct her, believing that saving her life is the miracle that fate has assigned to Peter (every person providentially has one such miracle inside him or her from birth, the narration blithely informs us). Luckily the horse proves useful again, carrying Lake and Beverly to the Penn retreat. There they, Isaac and Beverly’s little sister Willa get to know one another better in episodes that strain for significance in strange ways (one, involving a furnace that’s about to explode, seems positively pregnant with deep meaning) until Soames intervenes to bring about Beverly’s demise. That takes Peter back to the city for a confrontation he appears to lose, too.
But in fact he’s merely been deposited in 2014, where after regaining his memory he moons over Beverly and secures the help of Virginia Gamely (Connelly), a reporter with a terminally ill little daughter named Abby (Ripley Sobo), in figuring out his divine purpose. In the course of the investigation he’ll encounter a previous acquaintance (Eva Marie Saint, an octogenarian playing far older than her actual age). And of course a decisive confrontation with Soames will occur.
All this hooey is presented by Goldsman in a ponderous, point-making style meant to assure us that it’s fraught with profundity. He’s fortunate to have Caleb Deschanel on hand; the veteran cinematographer makes the widescreen images gleam. And the work of the crew—production designer Naomi Shohan, art director Peter Rogness, set decorator Leslie Rollins and costume designer Michael Kaplan—is striking. But the visual effects—like the wings the horse periodically sprouts (the beast is really angelic, you see) to sprint into the clouds—don’t carry the ethereal charge they’re intended to, and the plodding editing by Wayne Wahrman and Tim Squyres accentuates the picture’s goofiness rather than alleviating it.
The cast tries desperately to instill some richness to the characters, but they’re all stuck with essentially one-note roles. Farrell, burdened by a distinctly odd hairdo that requires him to regularly swipe it to the side to avoid having his face covered, swoons and suffers melodramatically, while Crowe, encumbered by a big facial scar and a constant scowl, reminds us of his stolid Javert. Findlay is suitably fragile and Connelly understandably bewildered, but apart from Hurt, who’s typically mannered, it’s the supporting performers—Saint, Greene, Kevin Corrigan as Soames’ first lieutenant—who fare best, perhaps because they leave the scene fairly quickly. In a category all his own is Smith, who looks totally at sea as a louche Lucifer.
Viewers who took to “Cloud Atlas” might find Goldsman’s “Winter’s Tale” seductively peculiar too. But oddness isn’t the same thing as profundity, and by presenting its themes in such a simpleminded, heavy-handed fashion the picture might even cause you to reevaluate whether Helprin’s book is as good as many critics claimed when it first appeared. That’s certainly not the outcome a devoted adapter would wish, but in this case it would be understandable.