Mark Helprin’s 30-year-old fantasy novel “Winter’s Tale” saunters onto the screen as a lovely but slow and emotionally austere experience, a romantic weeper that shortchanges the romance and the tears.
They threw Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) and a cast including three Oscar winners at this exercise in magical realism, and yet Helprin’s bulky, honored book leaves them pinned to the mat, its big themes seemingly diminished by the time the credits roll.
Colin Farrell stars as Peter, an orphan and a thief who grows up to be a second story man, which is how he meets the beautiful but sickly Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay of “Downton Abbey”). She’s dying of consumption, he’s smitten. And because he’s ridden this magical horse that has thrown Beverly into his path in 1916 New York, Peter figures he can save her.
The horse can fly, which is startling even to Peter, who knows the universe is a magical place and that people have magic in them, and that the horse has already saved him from his demon mentor, Pearly (Russell Crowe).
Pearly is a bloody lieutenant of no less than Lucifer, whose identity I won’t spoil. Ever so often, Pearly’s scarred, unforgiving face splits into a Satanic scowl, all teeth and rage, and the blood will flow.
Peter may be just as doomed as his seemingly doomed new lady friend. Then again, in the opening scene, we’ve seen this early 20th-century man walking the streets, confused and bearded, in 2014 Manhattan. Sometimes, “the universe reaches down and helps us find our destiny,” and so it is with Peter. Perhaps Jennifer Connelly, a modern-day single-mom newspaper food editor, can help him puzzle it out.
Goldsman was going to have to condense, trim and flip this novel back and forth to make a film out of it, and he ended up inventing characters, expanding some and shrinking others, to concoct a filmable version.
He’s rendered “Winter’s” into a tale of fine scenes with decent performances, but a story that probably won’t please fans of the book and will leave those who don’t know the book scratching their heads.
Young Ms. Findlay is one of those Hollywood Healthy consumptives, in the pink and playing a character whose constant fever means she goes barefoot in the snow and sleeps in tents even on the coldest nights.
“I’m 21, and I’ve never been kissed on the mouth,” she complains, which the thief she’s just met sets out to rectify.
William Hurt is Beverly’s newspaper editor father, and he and Farrell click in a sparkling and funny “what are your intentions?” scene that hinges on the confusing pronunciations of “claret,” “fillet” and “wallet.”
Crowe is plenty menacing, but all the rules of this universe conspire to keep him from tracking his quarry to the ends of the wintry Earth.
Goldsman, who also counts the adaptation of “I Am Legend” among his credits, never lets the film lean on its effects, but the tone of the fantasy and the romance of it all evades him. “Winter’s Tale” has no narrative drive and too little heart to come off.
Rather than solving the mystery of whether it is “possible to love someone so completely they cannot die,” it founders and bleeds out — a fairy tale too slow to “die the one true death.”