At the very least, Winter's Tale is something different.
It's a romance with fantastic elements, utterly lacking in cynicism, heading straight for the grandest emotions and deepest issues in life — love, death, time — without anybody worrying that the audience won't buy it or, worse, start laughing. It is partly a failure, but mostly it succeeds, and the film's aspiration is so enormous that that's enough for a moving experience.
The film's flaws most probably will be attributed to the story, based on the 1983 novel by Mark Helprin, about a thief who falls in love with a consumptive heiress in the New York City of 1916. But no, the story is not to blame, and neither is the screenplay by writer-director Akiva Goldsman, nor the performances. No, the fault here is with Goldsman's direction, which is in many ways lovely, but is uneven in one crucial particular.
The movie's one problem is that Goldsman seems unable to locate a balance point of harmony for all the story's disparate elements — fantasy, fairy tale, supernatural morality fable and saga of old New York. It's the director's job to fashion the specific universe in which a story can make perfect sense; and sometimes Goldsman just doesn't do that, so plot shifts that should have been easy to accept seem jarring instead. But then Goldsman, a seasoned screenwriter (A Beautiful Mind) who previously directed a handful of TV show episodes, has bitten off a tough assignment for his first feature film.
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Otherwise, Goldsman does pretty well. He brings off an early key scene, in which the thief, Peter (Colin Farrell) — on the run from his demonic (literally) mob boss (Russell Crowe) — hits it off swimmingly with the young heiress, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey fame), while in the course of robbing her house. Their almost instant spirit connection becomes believable because both, in their different ways, are desperate to stay alive, and each sees the other as embodying life's promise.
Beverly is the story's great creation. Only 21 and living with a death sentence, she claims that the sicker she gets, the more she can see "that everything is connected by light." In a sense, she is halfway between worlds, still grounded in the physical but with her head already turned to the next place. This kind of ethereal carnality is always effective in movies, at least with the right actress, and newcomer Findlay is perfectly cast. She makes Farrell's job easy. He just has to stay open and allow Peter to be a witness to radiance.
This radiance becomes tangible in the film's cinematography, which makes the actors look like cut-glass figures, sharp against the glowing backdrops. Even the night scenes glow with the blue-green light of a Hollywood moon, and they convey the sense of magic in the midst of things.
For two-thirds of its running time, Winter's Tale is like this and can do no wrong. And then in the last third, things go wrong, with some tonal weirdness and story elements that are far-fetched or are allowed to feel that way.
By holding his character together amid the shifts and turns, Farrell holds the emotional thread together, which is to say, he holds the movie together. Though a crook, Peter is a character of complete purity and honesty, and it's a pleasure to watch how Farrell plays that, whether in the movie's sole love scene — the most beautiful, so far, of 2014 — or in his dialogues with other actors. Whether speaking to a child or to William Hurt as the sick girl's father or to Eva Marie Saint as an old friend from days past, you can see Farrell striving, sometimes pausing, to say the truest thing in the simplest way.
These are virtues too strong to discount, and they easily make up for some of the last third's awkwardness. Besides, Winter's Tale has a magic white horse, and these days you just can't see enough of those.