Friday, February 14, 2014

Winter's Tale: A crisp, sparkling fantasy

Winter's Tale (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence and sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.14.14

Fans of Neil Gaiman’s novels, particularly Neverwhere and Stardust, will adore this film.

Director/scripter Akiva Goldsman’s luxuriously romantic fantasy offers the same mythic qualities: a setting that’s familiar yet not quite of this world; an incandescent yet oddly witty love story; and mortal characters — of a sort — caught within a timeless duel between agents of good and evil.

Despite having broken into her home with the intent of stealing its valuables, Peter
(Colin Farrell) finds his plans thwarted after meeting Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay).
Her response, to this uninvited stranger? Why, to offer him a cup of tea, of course!
It’s such an odd concoction that one false move — a single line of dialogue too precious, delivered with perhaps too much smug arrogance — and the entire narrative would collapse under the weight of its own contrivance. And yet Goldsman unerringly walks that fine line, delivering a warm, gently humorous and richly poignant adaptation of Mark Helprin’s massive 1983 novel.

Indeed, the first miracle is that Goldsman has captured this huge book’s essence in a film that runs a mere 118 minutes. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given his Academy Award victory for adapting A Beautiful Mind, and his obvious fondness for historical dramas (Cinderella Man) and speculative fiction (The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend).

Even so, this film’s mere existence represents a second miracle: a most unexpected roll of the dice by Warner Bros. Helprin’s captivating epic is the sort of story that rarely works on the big screen.

The American public is notoriously reluctant to embrace intelligent, adult-oriented fantasy, preferring instead the empty calories of popcorn sci-fi action flicks. Granted, Gaiman is doing his best to help reverse that trend, and Goldsman’s captivating work here could help a great deal.

I frankly hesitate to describe this plot to even a minor degree, because while not a mystery per se, Winter’s Tale derives much of its charm from the many revelations — major and minor — that emerge along the way. Indeed, even the casting offers surprises, all of them pleasant.

Our most unusual protagonist is Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), an orphan with an unusual origin, having arrived in late 19th century New York under quite unlikely circumstances. This is, in fact, the film’s core test: One must accept this startling, almost biblical introduction as a foreshadowing of the storytelling style to come. Having allowed this near-impossible weave of otherworldly thread, the resulting tapestry will be much easier to snuggle into.

Peter grows up poor and uneducated — a skilled thief who also possesses “a way with machines” — and lives on the streets until taken under the wing of a Fagin-like protector, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). We catch up with these two in 1916, with Peter on the run after some sort of falling out; the furious Soames and his men are hell-bent on cornering and then killing their prey ... slowly and painfully.

Let it be said: Few can top Crowe’s depiction of cold, malevolent fury. His Pearly is the stuff of nightmares. In more ways than one.

Peter is rescued, at the last possible second, by a white horse that appears quite unexpectedly ... and has a facility for astonishing jumps.

Knowing he must flee the city, Peter and his new equine companion pause long enough for a few second-story jobs, in order to finance the necessary escape. The horse, clearly possessing an agenda, points Peter toward his final target: a stately mansion whose occupants can be seen departing for some sort of lengthy trip.

But not all of them. Unbeknownst to Peter, a young woman has remained behind. This is Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), dying of a particularly nasty strain of consumption; she quells her frequent fevers, and in fact has prolonged her life, by sleeping outdoors atop the mansion, cooling her fragile body and breathing the crisp winter air while sheltered by a Moroccan-style tent.

They bump into each other; Beverly, with the calm wisdom of the terminally ill, sees nothing to fear from Peter. He, in turn, is captivated by her radiance, as if impending death has transformed her, supernova-like, into the best possible version of herself before darkness claims her.

Once again, everything is crucial in this scene, and Goldsman — making an impressive big-screen directing debut — draws rich and expressive performances from his stars. They’re a perfect match: Farrell’s aw-shucks Irish charm marvelously complemented by Findlay’s genteel British vulnerability.

The relationship kindles and ignites, for however long it can last. Peter is embraced warily by Beverly’s father, Isaac (William Hurt), and warmly by her younger sister, Willa (Mckayla Twiggs). The latter, desperate for her sister to survive, has concocted an improbable fantasy derived from Sleeping Beauty, involving a princess’ bed in the family arboretum, and the magic created by a kiss borne of true, undying love.

If only it were that simple.

Elsewhere, chafing over his recent failure, Pearly percolates with raw fury ... and seeks a fresh means to find and dispatch Peter, once and for all.

On top of which, the stakes are much higher than one apparently doomed romance would suggest: no less than a sought-for advantage in the eternal celestial struggle between hope and despair, angels and demons.

Pretty heady stuff, all given just the right tone by Goldsman and his production team.

Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s work is both atmospherically crucial and breathtakingly gorgeous, starting with the way he lights and films Beverly’s diaphanous rooftop tents: a setting with a romantic intensity we’ve not seen since Nicole Kidman’s “elephant house” in Moulin Rouge. Light and shadow are their own characters in this parable, and Deschanel rises to the challenge with lovely tableaus, whether moonlit walks in the snow or the stygian darkness inhabited by Pearly’s ageless overseer.

Farrell is ideally cast as the flawed, often puzzled, but willingly love struck protagonist: a “hero” who hasn’t the faintest comprehension of his role in much greater events. Farrell's half-smile and mildly amused glances are an intriguing counterpoint to his haunted, often forlorn eyes; his expressions bespeak great sorrow, both endured and freshly anticipated.

Findlay, easily recognized as Lady Sybil Crawley on TV’s Downton Abbey, is the effervescent, nonconformist yin to Farrell’s cautiously withdrawn yang. Victorian-era film heroines too frequently display the free-spirited self-possession of a 1960s flower child, which can be a problem; not so here, where we’re willing to forgive Beverly’s willful, self-assured bearing because of her illness ... just as her doting father does.

Crowe, as already mentioned, is nightmare incarnate: a figure of consummate evil whose very shadow radiates loathsome menace. We imagine him dining on rats and spiders, or passing the time by pulling the limbs off small furry animals. Crowe’s baleful glare stops our hearts; his feral smiles are even worse.

Hurt is quietly commanding as the worldly Isaac Penn, a man crushed by the knowledge that his vast fortune can’t save those he loves. Young Twiggs is adorable as Willa, who sparkles with the preternatural awareness of a soul far wiser than her years would suggest.

Even the smallest roles are well cast. Matt Bomer (TV’s White Collar) and Lucy Griffiths make a strong impression as Peter’s parents, who undertake a startling gamble to save their infant son. Maurice Jones strikes an appropriate air of mystery as Cecil Mature, Peter’s one true friend, who seems to know far more than he lets on. The always noble Graham Greene also offers sage counsel when Peter needs advice.

Later in the story, Jennifer Connelly brings considerable warmth as Virginia, a woman with an instinctive sensitivity akin to Beverly’s, who ... well, that would be telling.

And good heavens: Is that really Eva Marie Saint, popping up in the third act? Indeed yes, and just as graceful, just shy of 90 (!), as she was in 1959’s North by Northwest.

Finally, Pearly is assisted by various lieutenants who share an unlikely last name while doing their boss’ nefarious bidding: Romeo Tan (Kevin Corrigan) and Cesar Tan (Kevin Durand).

The sumptuously dreamy score comes from Rupert Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer, who deliver tender undertones or malevolent cadences, as given scenes demand. Editors Tim Squyres and Wayne Wahrman are appropriately restrained; Goldsman clearly understands that quieter, old-style pacing is essential to this story’s atmosphere of magic realism.

Production designer Naomi Shohan recreates early 20th century New York to the last tiny degree, and also does wonderful things with the Penn family’s twin estates.

All this said, there’s no question that some viewers — those who dismiss adult fairy tales with a contemptuous sniff — won’t buy into any of this. Winter’s Tale caters to undying romantics who thrive on the heightened emotions raised by carefully structured parables; cynics with hearts of stone need not apply.

For the rest of us, though, Goldsman’s achingly sweet film is a genuine treat.

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