Akiva Goldsman’s Winter’s Tale attempts to take moviegoers on a romantic and heartwarming magical journey across time, employing a deep bench of acting talent, impeccable production design, lush cinematography, and quite a few special effects. What it succeeds in doing, however, is boggling the mind. If what you’re looking for is an occasionally convincing romance that culminates in well-lit and tasteful fornication (all for love!), seasoned with a dash of spiritualist intimations of destiny or fate or lower-case-p-providence, then this is the movie for you.
Set in 1916 and 2014, Winter’s Tale tells the story of Peter Lake, a man born to immigrants who are refused entry to the US because of his father’s poor health. Rather than take their infant son back to the motherland with them, they put him in a model clipper ship from their steamer and float him ashore, because of something about a better life in America. The orphaned Peter grows into a good-hearted and clever burglar who eventually crosses his crime boss, a cruel and literally demonic thug named Pearly Soames, played with Irish-accented menace by Russell Crowe. A magical white horse eventually helps Peter escape Pearly’s henchmen, and then directs Peter to the home of the enchanted, red-haired beauty Beverly Penn, played by Jessica Brown Findlay (a.k.a. Lady Sybil Crawley from Downton Abbey), who has consumption and spouts alluring mumbo-jumbo about cosmic matters. They “meet cute” as he tries to rob her house, and their fates align. Eventually the tale moves to present-day New York, with amnesia and presumed immortality for Peter, and the appearance of the under-utilized but always lovely Jennifer Connelly as a troubled single mother.
As a writer of fantasy, I have spent hours working on topics like plausibility and rules in imaginary worlds, and thinking about how a few magical tweaks here and there might make the story better or worse, or how leniency with rules might break whatever spell of consistency I’m going for. Because of this, I must admit I might be merciless when I see another artist fail in these areas. But, using the word “artist” to describe Akiva Goldsman might be fantastically generous to begin with. The writer of the adapted screenplay for The DaVinci Code makes his directorial debut with Winter’s Tale, and is credited with writing and producing as well, adapting Mark Helprin’s well-received 1983 novel. However, Helprin’s smart and humorous novel has been greatly altered from an homage to New York City with subtle magical elements to an inconsistent mediocrity. In Goldsman’s version, no cosmology is left unmolested as he strings together reference upon reference to a war between spiritual powers angelic and demonic. The novel’s use of faery elements is diminished in favor of vaguely Judeo-Christian cosmology, and the freedom that may have been offered by using the faery-story material is lost just as the Judeo-Christian cosmology is corrupted and misrepresented. The human interactions are occasionally compelling, especially with such talented actors at work, but the decisions made with the story wreck the good qualities present in the novel.
Let’s posit for a moment that this cinematic tale is, on a story level, logically consistent. It’s still hugely problematic as a carrier of Moral Therapeutic Deism, that corruption of American Christianity that expects God and religion to make us feel better, and be somewhat better people, without much need to get hung up on the worship part. All manner of Judeo-Christian-esque spirituality clogs the arteries of this film, including mentions of angels and demons (with Lucifer played by Will Smith); however, the only time “Jesus Christ” is mentioned is when Peter Lake takes His name in vain. There’s plenty of voiceover at the close of the film to assure us, in Brown Findlay’s melodious and posh British accent, that, well, “Everything’s going to work out just fine, because I’m saying it so soothingly, right?” (Don’t worry—that’s not an actual quote.) So some kind of providence, then, and a stubborn, non-credal belief in the meaningfulness of life and of events are what drive the concluding narration and thus provide the “moral” of the film. And this is where I flew off the handle.
I’ve been reading a little Luigi Giussani lately. He stubbornly insists upon returning the focus of the practice of the Catholic faith to the Person of Jesus. Without rooting our spirituality, our personhood, our hopes—everything—in Jesus, our religion becomes just a philosophy, which will fall with the first harsh blow from reality, from tragedy, or from the ever-encroaching malaise of skepticism. Winter’s Tale traffics in the kind of kitschy, shallow spirituality which, if imbibed uncritically, will impart an optimism that wouldn’t survive a famine. The philosophy of this tale is not Judeo-Christianity, but optimism; it is not bound by Jesus or YHWH or the revelation of the Divine in any way. Rather, Winter’s Tale shrouds itself in the trappings of later American Christianity, seeming to offer some of its characters salvation from suffering, but not from sin. Peter Lake and others get freed from Lucifer and demonic thugs in this version of things, but Peter still gets a night in bed with Beverly without having to make any vows.
Anyone who’s ever felt their faith challenged by doubt or had an existential crisis will have an allergic reaction to this movie. Here comes a spoiler, but basically: True Love’s Kiss Cures Cancer! Anybody who’s ever lost a loved one to disease might find themselves throwing popcorn (or Camus) at the screen. I kept thinking, what does this narrative offer to ground its optimistic belief that events will conspire for good ends? Who is the guarantor of such a spiritual loan? God? Which version of God? The one who runs the Bank of Moral Therapeutic Deism? I think their credit rating is inflated, so, thanks but no thanks.
I keep hoping that a studio will put out a good romantic epic, so I watch things like this, forgetting that the hack behind The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons was at work here. So many fine actors are in this film that every 10 minutes of screen time has you saying to yourself, “She’s in this? And him, too?!” I mean, Eva Marie Saint shows up! And Zooey’s dad, a.k.a. Caleb Deschanel, is responsible for some beautiful cinematography. So if stories in which hair color drives events and a kiss can stop death float your boat, this one’s for you! But if Christian Existentialism is more your style, better steer clear of Winter’s Tale.