Much of Winter’s Tale hinges on the power of light, something that Akiva Goldsman doesn’t let you forget. His frames are filled with often blinding and unpleasant candlelight, and his narrative concerns light, reflected off of gems, that gives a crime boss, Pearly (Russell Crowe), special powers. It proves especially useful when used to locate his nemesis, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a master thief who was to be his successor and whose red-haired betrothed, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), suffers from consumption and is introduced trying to describe the wonder of the light around her through poetic him-hawing. But of course, it’s not just light, but rather His light.
Adapted from Mark Helprin’s novel, Winter’s Tale is set in 1912 New York, though it exists in a timeless world of angels and demons, pure good and pure evil. Not long after his parents are kicked out of Ellis Island, Peter, the story’s immortal protagonist, arrives as a baby in America resting inside a—no joke—floating manger. And Goldsman certainly doesn’t take the scenic route to let us know that Pearly is in league with the dark side, as the flamboyant hood takes conference with a pestered Lucifer (Will Smith) and runs a vague, hugely corrupt finance enterprise. At another point, Pearly kills a waiter and uses his blood to paint a vision. The moralistic lines are drawn clearly, and yet Goldsman spends a tremendous amount of time reminding you just how little nuance he has given these characters.
The film’s special effects are bland and unconvincing, but the lack of inspiration and inventiveness is never felt as strongly as when Pearly gets riled and dons a demon face that looks akin to an untreated rash. Winter’s Tale runs on a tinny religious fantasy, one that involves a flying horse and a world where miracles can be used by anyone in line with the divine. Fantasy is heavily dependent on vision, which Helprin had in spades, but the look of Goldsman’s fantasy is limp, timid, and occasionally outright awkward, as in a calamitously edited climactic horse chase through the woods. The filmmaker feigns a strong bond to the concepts of eternal love and heroic destiny, as it is all anybody talks about in the film. But the indifference and impersonal distance he shows toward expressing these ideas through his craft suggests far more calculated and unsavory impulses aimed at flagrant emotional manipulation and cheap philosophizing.
Though consistently visually off-putting, Winter’s Tale is, for the most part, all talk. Crowe gets to sink his teeth into a few cartoonish diatribes about how much he loves evil, while Farrell and Findlay stumble through gooey romantic speechifying as if it were verbal quicksand. It’s hard to pinpoint one moment that crystalizes the self-serious platitudes that Goldsman’s script is built on, though Pearly’s bragging of having “crushed miracles” for eons is a strong contender. Crowe’s exchanges with Smith are haltingly smug and insipid, and Smith seems especially uncomfortable with what he’s saying, as if being forced to repay a debt through performance. Even William Hurt, who plays Beverly’s father and has a history of being the classiest part of otherwise dreadful productions, seems to be racing toward the end of his dialogue.
This being a war between God and Beelzebub, Goldsman underlines every utterance with an intangible, cosmic importance, but the filmmaker summons neither the grandeur nor the humanism that such endeavors should rest on. The failure of Winter’s Tale isn’t in its religious origins, but rather in the graceless, ugly way they are presented, without an iota of insight or self-awareness. In other words, the light was meant to blind you.