Reviewed by Galen Strickland
There is perhaps too much magic in this film, certainly overdone in one particular, but for the most part it works. I was prepared to hate this movie, and it seems the majority of critics and moviegoers do (currently 12% for critics, 50% from viewers at rottentomatoes.com), but I'll side with Neil Gaiman on this one. It has to be said upfront that the only way to adequately service Mark Helprin's novel would be a miniseries of at least eight hours, maybe twelve. Director Akiva Goldsman, who also scripted, has done an admirable job of encapsulating the major thematic elements of the book, even if it required dropping multiple characters, changing details on a few that remained, as well as creating a totally new one. I am hoping there is an extended version released on Blu-Ray, since according to advance credits posted on IMDb there must have been several scenes left on the editing room floor. Graham Greene's character isn't even named in the film, but he is in the posted credits, along with an actor playing his younger self. There is mention of how Peter Lake was found as an infant, but we don't see the "Young Humpstone John" who would have been in that scene.
I'll also agree with Gaiman that you can't trust any of the trailers you may have seen. Yes, the love story between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn is important, but it is not the major theme, just as it wasn't in the book. Both Helprin and Goldsman are crafty enough to make you think that for quite a while, but Peter Lake's destiny lies elsewhere. Those trailers were simply an unnecessary ploy for the Valentine's Day release. I could have done without Will Smith's character of "The Judge," but I can see how it would help the average viewer understand Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) better, especially how and why he inhabits both segments of the story even though they are a hundred years apart. I question the inclusion of Cecil Mature (changed out of all recognition) but the exclusion of the Reverend Mootfowl and Jackson Mead, not to mention Hardesty Marratta, Harry Penn and Craig Binky, and I would love to have seen an actress like Maggie Smith take on the character of Mrs. Gamely. I doubt if a three hour film could have included much of their stories, and what we got is less than two.
So, it's not a perfect film, and probably not one I'd want to see too many other times unless there is added footage, but it was surprisingly satisfying. Since I've recently re-read the book, I'm not sure yet which ending I prefer, although the movie is more positive. Just as with many movies based on books, it is an adaptation, not a direct transcription. I can't think of a director that could have done any better considering the restrictions the studio placed on Goldsman, which seems to mainly have been, "You have to explain the magic." I was skeptical at first since this is Goldsman's feature film debut, but he gets masterful help from award-winning cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and Hans Zimmer's score is subtle rather than overwhelming. The acting is universally good, including Colin Farrell, of whom I've previously been unimpressed. Russell Crowe is masterfully evil, Jessica Brown Findlay is beautiful and captivating, and even though Jennifer Connelly's character was changed and scaled back a lot, she is perfect in her limited role. One change I thought was great was replacing Harry Penn with Beverly's younger sister Willa as the head of the newspaper empire in the current era, even though the character would have been much older than Eva Marie Saint is now. The book wasn't perfect either, but both book and movie attempted something beyond a simple love story, and they both succeed to varying degrees. As Helprin wrote it, Winter's Tale could be said to be unfilmable, but as reshaped by Goldsman it is a beautiful and inspiring story. As I said in my book review, it is a fantasy, and it is necessary to let the story flow over you and accept things without questioning them too much. Anyone who can't do that, or who has a problem with a bit of spirituality woven into their fiction, had best avoid both of them. But, in my opinion, that would be a mistake. It's not necessarily a must-see in the theater, but for those who want to wait for the video release, my recommendation is not to put it off until next Valentine's Day.
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