I was completely drawn in by the trailer. In many ways, the film completely delivered that vision although not the focus. It suggests that the movie is mainly about the love between Peter (Farrell) and Beverly (Findlay); it’s mainly about good v.s. evil; the good, hidden away in the one, and overflowing from the other. The cinematography is fabulous, the acting is great (especially Mr. Farrell’s) and the story premises matches the trailers promise. Alas, the story is ultimately disappointing; it is a story where you must suspend you disbelief not simply on magical elements but on the underlying meaning ascribed to events.
This is one of the very few times I can’t say that’s due to the movie’s take on the book because I uncharacteristically didn’t read the book first. So this is purely a review of movie. While you often don’t want to examine too closely the believe systems in fantasy and SciFi movies; over analyzing those movies sucks the joy out of them. This movie not only invites it but seems to ensure you are confronted with the notion that life’s motive and purpose matter but, as you dive into that, it’s not at all clear why. In particular, you are guided throughout the story and, especially through voice-overs, to give meaning to why events conspire as the do. However, when you come to the ultimate event and culminating meaning, there is no satisfying explanation. I’ll describe this more below since to do so will involved spoilers.
The story centers around the clash between good and evil as portrayed by Peter Lake & Beverly Penn and Pearly Somes and his gang. Peter worked as a thief for Pearly but decides to quit working for him; it’s never explicitly stated but presumed that he no longer wants to work for such a bad guy. Pearly is hacked because Peter is talented, he raised him to the task and no one walks away from Pearly. Peter does not give up completely on stealing however. He attempts to steal from the Penn’s but instead falls for Beverly.
The cast is superb. Mr. Farell has a combination of nonchalance and intensity that enables him to move equally between love, fear and defiance. Ms. Findlay, well the entire audience falls in love with her. She is both innocent and perceptive, beguiling and beguiled. She is full of joie de vie in the midst of dying of consumption (TB); ironically the very reason Peter’s father is not allowed to immigrate. Ms. Findlay does this so naturally that you believe she simply is this way and cannot be otherwise. Then you remember Downton Abbey where she is fiery and nice but nothing to this degree. Mr. Crowe exudes evil and brutishness. Mr. Smith steals each scene he’s in and is both daunting and funny. Mr. Hurt, Ms. Connelly and Ms. Saint all play their parts perfectly. Finally, as we all love Beverly Penn so do we love her sister Willa; I don’t know whether Miss Twiggs is naturally disarming and charming or not but she certainly projected this on screen.
It’s hard to project magical fantasy well. Winter’s Tale does this beautifully. The New York portrayed is one of imagination and fable; a wintery wonder land in which castles exist by the lakeside, bridges go unused by all but the players and flying horses are mingled with cars and pedestrians. Nearly each frame is a work of art. The soundtrack meshes well in this world. Both haunting and lyrical, the music evokes longing and hope for good to win out even while events seem to conspire against those about whom we care. K T Tunstall is at her best on Miracle (which saying something); stay for the credits simply to hear her.
Early on in the story, Beverly provides a voice-over narrative describing lovely mythology about love and desire, how we become stars after this life (or lives) and perhaps, if we love deeply enough, the beloved will not die. Beverly dies and becomes a star; her miracle to give (presummably because she is good and loving) is for Peter to live on even after his seeming death at the hands of Pearly. Why? What his purpose? He goes modern but in forgetfullness. There is something tugging on him but he doesn’t know what it is; it simply comes out as a drawing of a red-headed girl and the moon; Beverly. Then he discovers his purpose – to save the true model of the drawing, a little girl, Abby. Why. We never know. The film explicitly indicates the no one’s life is more valuable than another yet all of this sacrifice of miracle and time are so that she may live. There is no reason given. I may be that Mr. Helprin was simply raising questions and ideas while not providing answers. The movie, however, places a stake in the ground with a clear arrow for which direction it’s going then fails to deliver. Does this mar the whole film? In the sense that the crescendo remains unresolved, yes. I will watch it again. I will ignore the attempt at voiced-over explanation and simply live in each moment without any further purpose and enjoy that for what it is – a visual, sonic and, to a lesser extent, emotional feast. I will understand that I’m watching a really good film that reached for greatness and fell a bit short.