Three words. Jessica Brown Findlay.
Before anyone even attempts to tell you about Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation of Mark Helprin’s fantasy novel “Winter’s Tale,” you need to know about this movie’s major news, which is Findlay, an English actress of surpassing and utterly transfixing loveliness that you may find every bit as stunning as Colin Farrell does the first time he lays eyes on her in the film (and director Goldsman clearly did behind the camera).
She plays a tragic young New York City heiress in 1915 with long, curly, flowing red hair (she’s a brunette naturally) and a terminal case of “the fever,” i.e. consumption, or as we’ve long called it, tuberculosis, a fearsome microbial killer in the West until the late 1950s. She plays Brahms on the piano and is supposed to be just about the loveliest woman in New York. You won’t doubt it for a second seeing the movie.
Such renown as 24-year-old Findlay has is from her role as a free spirit in a couple of seasons of “Downton Abbey.” I must say, she is symptomatic of this movie’s finely honed sense of what to do with beautiful female faces in front of a movie camera. They become a kind of “magic realist” element of its own in adapting Helprin’s magic realist fantasy novel.
Director Goldsman knows that there is nothing that movies have ever done as hypnotic as showing you a magnificent face. Hence Findlay, playing a dying woman enraptured by her first and only love, played by Farrell. Also in striking close-ups in his movie are Jennifer Connelly and 89-year-old Eva Marie Saint – three generations, then, of screen beauties who are, far and away, the most memorable thing about the film.
It’s not that Russell Crowe doesn’t try to give them all a run for their money as a demon named Pearly Soames, with ravaging horrible scars on his left cheek and eyes that flare up with CGI when he loses his temper. I suppose there will be those in the audience who find all the close-ups of its star Farrell in a weird sort of mullet just as transfixing as Findlay. But I submit to you Farrell is a well-known quantity in movies which is not the case with his young co-star, playing the sort of woman who can stop a burglar dead in his tracks in midjob and have him bedazzled enough to sit down for tea.
And now the movie. It is, no doubt, to be given a wide berth by: 1) all hopeless literalists who find cinematic fantasy annoying; 2) all vehement non-romantics who find fantastic tales of love that never dies to be an egregious assault on time that might be better spent on the bloodspattering machines of “RoboCop” and 3) all anti-literary types who find all saltings of obviously imported high-flown literary eloquence a personal offense to their plodding sense of spoken language.
“The Bachelor,” this ain’t. If they weren’t selling it as a Valentine’s Day movie, I doubt whether they’d have had any idea what to do with it at all. I don’t think the movie really works, but I can’t tell you how sympathetic I am to the people who failed trying to make it work.
Goldsman, is, among other things, the fellow who wrote the script for “A Beautiful Mind,” and here, under wildly different circumstances, are that movie’s Crowe and Connelly in a movie together again. (Connelly won a Supporting Actress Oscar last time around.)
Martin Scorsese, for one, once wanted to adapt Helprin’s novel but came to the conclusion it was unfilmable. He wasn’t entirely wrong, but as cinematic overreach goes, “Winter’s Tale” is nothing if not endearing.
Goldsman has the crucial help of the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“The Natural”), father of Emily and Zooey and obviously a man who knows how love looks in front of a camera.
The story, adapted freely from Helprin, gives us a burglar named Peter Lake in 1915 who lives over Grand Central Station because he’s had a falling out with his old employer and father figure, Soames, played by Crowe at his villainous beefiest.
He keeps escaping from Soame’s pursuits with the help of a white horse who can jump 15 feet in the air over fences and sprout wings when necessary. On one of the burglar’s busier nights in his trade, that horse insists he make one more stop at a deserted New York manse – which isn’t deserted at all but is occupied by a red-haired angel playing Brahms on the piano (Findlay) who gives him a cup of tea, tells him she’s dying of consumption and that she’s 21 and has never been kissed on the mouth.
That, of course, will be taken care of by Farrell before film’s end. But if you don’t know the book, there are minor surprises in store, including some tragic and some goofy (a very unlikely actor, for instance, playing Lucifer) and a shift to modern-day New York with Connelly and Saint.
What was “magic realism” in Helprin’s novel becomes droll CGI fantasy here, and is, as I said, quite endearing for a tearjerker for those in a sympathetic frame of mind.
For everyone else, love means never having to say you’re sorry. In other words, not seeing it in the first place.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe, Will Smith, Jennifer Connelly, Eva Marie Saint, William Hurt
Director: Akiva Goldsman
Running time: 118 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence and artful suggestions of nudity and sex.
The Lowdown: A burglar falls in love with a dying young heiress and battles a demon in adaptation of Mark Helprin’s fantasy novel.