Remember Eva Marie Saint? She was the female lead in two legendary motion pictures, “On the Waterfront” and Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”—Cary Grant tosses her onto the top bunk in the railroad car sleeping compartment in the last scene of the latter movie. Remember her? Well, she’s in the new romance-fantasy film, “Winter’s Tale.”
The story, borrowed from Mark Helpren’s novel, is about a boy, Peter Lake, who is a baby when he arrives in America in 1895. Because his father has tuberculosis (which the characters call “consumption”), Peter’s parents are turned away. But as their ship leaves New York City, his father sends his son sailing Moses-like back in a model boat called “The City of Justice.”
Raised in the streets by a character played by Graham Greene, another solid old star we rarely see, Peter grows up busking and picking a few pockets. When the set-up work is over, adult Peter (Colin Ferrell) has just broken with his evil crime boss, the demonic Pearly (Oscar winner Russell Crowe).
Murderous Pearly goes all Incredible Hulk when he loses his temper, and he is angry at his rebel minion, who has escaped on a magical flying white horse. The horse isn’t quite ready for Peter to leave town, though. Directed by his mount, our hero climbs into a momentarily near-deserted mansion, looking to steal, and meets a girl.
Red-headed Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a rich girl and piano ace who is dying from t.b. She and Peter fall in love in the time it takes Pearly’s thugs to surround the house. Luckily, Pegasus flies our hero and heroine away from pursuit to Beverly’s family’s rural (Connecticut?) home.
Pearly wants to follow but is denied permission by a demonic administrator played by Will Smith. Meanwhile Peter’s forthrightness and his abilities at furnace fixing win over Beverly’s father (William Hurt). Beverly’s little sister Willa shows Peter a sleeping beauty couch in the conservatory where he is to bring Beverly, should she swoon, and revive her with a kiss.
To get back at Peter, Pearly finds a way to poison Beverly, and the kiss does not bring her back to life. After the in-town funeral, the evil pack chases Peter onto a bridge where he is headbutted repeatedly by Pearly and tossed into the water below.
He survives, but he retains no memory of his past for years. And Peter never ages. He wanders the city making chalk drawings of his red-haired love as she looks at the night sky.
Then, in a meeting well set-up in earlier action, he meets a sick little girl and her journalist mother (Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly). With Ma’s help, Peter begins to remember things. Then, in a mystic coincidence, he meets Willa, now all grown up and played by Saint.
The rest of the story has all been well enough prepared that it seems fitting and yet we don’t know for sure what turn it is going to take at any moment. The action is fast enough, the romance romantic enough, and the music (by Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams) gives the film a taste of magic and a taste of Ireland. The special effects—the flying horse, for example, or Crowe’s transformations—are similarly and deftly managed.
But I think the real attraction here is the cast. Farrell has a new character, someone fully male and competent but also trustworthy. Findlay has the film’s light touch, too, and she looks great as a red-head. Smith, Greene, Crowe, Hurt, Connelly, and Saint. This is a remarkable bunch of actors.
They have been attracted to this project, to a movie that manages to tell a romance story without falling into cliché and manages to incorporate fantasy elements without becoming a servant to its own new reality.
“Winter’s Tale” is not as magical as a Christmas production of “The Nutcracker” in Covent Garden, and watching it is no life-changing event. But it is a likable film full of characters one wants to believe in.