Saturday, February 22, 2014

Winter's Tale

WINTER’S TALE          B-         
USA  (118 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Akiva Goldsman                  Official site

I have been to another world, and come back.  Listen to me. 
—opening narration from the book

Magic is everywhere around us, you just have to look, look closely. 
—opening narration from the film

Every action and every scene has its purpose.  And the less power one has, the closer he is to the great waves that sweep through all things, patiently preparing them for the approach of a future signified not by simple human equity (a child could think of that), but by luminous and surprising connections that we have not imagined, by illustrations terrifying and benevolent — a golden age that will show not what we wish, but some bare awkward truth upon which rests everything that ever was and everything that ever will be.  There is justice in the world, Peter Lake, but it cannot be had without mystery. 
—lyrical prose expressing one of the themes from the book

What is essentially a children’s fantasy story is expanded into a darker adult world of corruption and evil, yet retains the Hollywood fairy tale romance where love conquers all, in this case even death, though hardly as one might expect.  Adapted from Mark Helperin’s 1983 novel, this follows a similar pattern of making Hollywood movie versions of extremely popular fantasy novels, like Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES (2009), Robert Schwentke’s The Time Traveler's Wife (2009), and even Andrew Adamson’s THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA:  THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (2005), where in each case love retains a mythical status that is larger than life, while the complexity of the books is lost in the Hollywood movie adaptations which have been met with critical disappointment.  Set in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century, the city itself resembles an ice palace, as the rivers are frozen over with small groups of people seen skating on the shores, also cooking things outdoors on skewers where the hustle and bustle of snowy outdoor activity may resemble the chaotic conditions of a Pieter Bruegel painting, like The Hunters in the Snow or The Census at Bethlehem.  The film also leaps ahead a hundred years into the present, while also backtracking several decades to a traumatic incident early on where an Eastern European family is turned away at Ellis Island due parental illness, and in a ridiculously desperate act the parents place their baby into a tiny model boat called the City of Justice and release him to the winds of fate, eventually washing ashore in the Bayonne Marsh of New Jersey where he was raised by shoremen, eventually expelled to New York, where a strange wall of clouds surrounds the city.  The boy turns out to be Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), who has learned his trade as a professional thief from Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, both speaking a thick Irish accent), who appears to be a demon of some sort, as his every breath is hellbent upon bringing evil into this world.  Breaking away from Pearly, Peter Lake relies upon his own wits, using stealth measures to steal and remain undetected, which infuriorates Pearly who wants the world to fear the inevitable presence of evil in their midst. 

Much like the angel Lucifer breaking away from God in heaven, this is a film that concerns itself with angels and demons, opposite forces that continually intermingle with strange, otherworldly powers, where one simply has to accept the supernatural elements that come into play in this story, where much of the narrative concerns itself with the power of light, where the constant image of light reflections are seen throughout.  In contrast, Pearly and his men are aligned with the dark forces and are always dressed in dark colors, where Pearly himself has an unbecoming scar across his face.  While Peter Lake is living in a loft high above Grand Central Station’s main concourse, Pearly’s men eventually track him down to an abandoned pier where his days appear numbered until a white stallion horse appears out of nowhere and literally flies him away to safety.  This as much as anything describes the somewhat oppressive moralistic lines at play in this film, where human characteristics are minimized in order to enlarge an interconnecting theme that we are all linked together, that everything has its purpose, and that miracles can happen.  One of the troubling aspects of the film is the sheer lack of subtlety or nuance in the way the film is presented, where themes are literally driven into the audience’s head like a pile driver, and where the special effects (other than the wintry setting) are largely disappointing.  That said, the central developing romance may remind some of TITANIC (1997), especially the mingling of different social classes and the elevated power of love, which is ultimately so transcending.  Peter Lake finds himself in what he believes is an empty home of a wealthy family, and what was intended to be a successful haul turns out to be love at first sight, where the astonishing beauty of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay, from TV’s Downton Abbey) literally takes his breath away, immediately altering the course of his destiny, where Colin Farrell does an excellent job conveying this emotional upheaval taking place within, especially after discovering she’s a virgin who’s never danced with a man before or been kissed, but is also dying of consumption, making their time together precious and unbelievably tender. 

While there are dual themes of doom, with Beverly’s impending death and Pearly’s obsession to kill Peter Lake, they are enhanced even further by the presence of Lucifer himself, amusingly played by Will Smith in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt spending his days reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, cultural references that are a good half century yet to occur.  Apparently Pearly has to petition for a change of rules in order to chase down and destroy this couple in a geographical area outside his jurisdiction, as his intent is to prevent any miracles from happening, allowing nothing that would give the populace hope.  While this is admittedly silly, Pearly has an underworld network that extends just about anywhere, where his reach is as mythical as his reputation.  Once more Peter Lake and his flying horse rescue the fair maiden from the clutches of evil and fly her to the family mansion along the frozen riverbank where her family awaits.  His presence draws the attention of her inquisitive father (William Hurt), but also Beverly’s adorable little sister Willa (Mckayla Twiggs), both of whom are curious about his intentions.  While it’s a race against death, for a few precious moments love prevails, where the audience is drawn into their enchanting world, largely from their delicate chemistry together and the appeal of their performances, where this mystifying love is one for the ages, as we understand exactly what he means when he tells her “You are impossibly beautiful.”  But reality sets in, no miracles happen, and evil prevails, where Peter Lake is thrown into the East River and left for dead, except that he inexplicably survives without his memory, doomed to wander for a hundred years unable to recall who he is, yet retaining his same age the entire time, adding a bookend element to the story that is just as bewildering as the rest of the film, but it’s charged with the “love conquers all” spirit that only exists in fairy tales.  Colin Ferrell and Russell Crowe work well together, adding plenty of weight to the forces of good and evil, while Jessica Brown Findlay adds her own youthful charm and innocence.  The acting is altogether engaging, easily the best thing in the film, as it retains a bit of the magical allure that the rest of the movie lacks.

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