Maybe some books really are unfilmable?
On the surface, a love story about the relationship between a thief and a dying heiress at the turn of the last century seems pretty straightforward.However as anyone who has read Mark Helprin’s book 'Winter’s Tale' can tell you, the story is anything but straightforward. The novel includes elements of time travel and over the course of its 800 pages it covers more than a hundred years. It also primarily takes place in a mythic New York at the turn of the 20th century, which whilst having an industrial Edwardian feel to it, is markedly different from the historical city. The novel tells of the epic romance between Peter Lake and Beverley Penn, with supernatural overtones and bathed in a tribute to New York itself, if the city could always remain in a mystical state.
The book has often been described as ‘unfilmable’ and allegedly even Martin Scorsese let the the film option lapse because he couldn’t work out how to adapt the story. For Akiva Goldsman however, Winter’s Tale has been something of a passion project. The Oscar-winning writer of A Beautiful Mind spent the last three years bringing it to the screen. In the US the film is called Winter’s Tale, the same as the novel, but here in the UK the title has been changed to A New York Winter’s Tale. Presumably to avoid confusion with Shakespeare’s 'A Winter’s Tale' or possibly the David Essex song.
The film centres on Peter Lake, a petty thief and burglar who, when he was a baby, was set adrift by his parents in New York harbour after they were refused entry at Ellis Island. The adult Peter is played by Colin Farrell and when we meet him, he is running from local gangster Pearly Soames, played by Russell Crowe, in whose gang Peter had previously been a member. Peter is saved from Pearly by a mysterious white horse that becomes his protector and spirit guide.
Peter realises it would be safer to get out of New York City but before leaving he decides to break into one more mansion that appears to be empty. However, whilst attempting to rob the house he realises that a young woman is there and he meets Beverley Penn, played by Jessica Brown Findlay. Peter instantly falls in love with Beverley who reveals that she is dying of tuberculosis. Although he tries to leave New York, Peter comes back to save Beverley from Pearly and so their romance begins.
The film tells the story of the romance between burglar Peter Lake and dying heiress Beverley Penn.In an attempt to adapt the book, Goldsman has excluded numerous elements, whilst adding others and as such the plot becomes somewhat confusing. It certainly helps if you have read the book but the two stories are quite different. The supernatural elements include the previously mentioned white horse, which can fly, angels and demons and even Lucifer himself in a star cameo. The film predominantly takes place in 1916 but the last third of the story takes place in 2014, which is jarring because you’ve spent 80 minutes getting to know one set of characters and now you have to get to know another set.
The rest of the cast includes William Hurt as Beverley’s father, Isaac Penn, Jennifer Connelly who plays Virginia Gamely in the 2014 segment and Eva Marie Saint as what can only be described as a 106 year old newspaper editor. It’s inconsistencies like this that make the film difficult to buy into. There’s nothing wrong with having supernatural or fantastical elements but a film requires a set of internal rules and it needs to stick to them. Unfortunately, Winter’s Tale just seem to jump from scene to scene with little in the way of internal logic and as such it makes very little sense.
Some of this can be levelled at the novel but mostly the problem lies in trying to condense 800 pages into a two-hour movie. Another problem is that Goldsman just doesn't seem up to the job of adapting a book that was probably unfilmable to begin with. Despite having won an Academy Award, Goldsman’s track record isn't exactly great, this is the guy that wrote Batman & Robin after all and as a result many of his decisions are baffling. This is especially true in the case of Pearly Soames, who is quite a different character from the book, although Russell Crowe doesn't really help. The actor is chewing scenery in a ridiculous manner and sporting an appalling comedy Irish accent that borders on being insulting. It's even worse than his so-called 'Nottingham' accent in Robin Hood and given that Colin Farrell was on set, he could easily have got some pointers from an actual Irishman.
At least Farrell is good in the role of Peter Lake, bringing his natural charm to the character and making you to care about him. His is a difficult part because he carries the entire film and is the major link between the 1916 and 2014 sequences. Jessica Brown Findlay, best known previously for playing Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, is lovely as Beverley Penn, although she looks a picture of health despite being in the advanced stages of tuberculosis. As in the book, she sleeps on the roof of the mansion and is constantly exposed to the cold winter as a treatment for the fever caused by her consumption. As ridiculous as that might sound, this apparently really was a recommended treatment for tuberculosis, although we can't imagine it actually helped.
Farrell is charming as Peter and Brown Findlay is lovely as Beverley Penn, although she looks too healthy for someone with TB.
The film is Goldsman’s debut as a director and in that respect he does a good job, marshalling his limited resources to create an attractive looking film. The budget was only $60 million, which isn’t much for a period film with fantasy elements, but the production design, cinematography and music are great and the effects are certainly passable. It's never easy to present a flying horse and not make it look silly but the filmmakers largely succeed and the same is true of the demonic elements, Russell Crowe's accent aside.
We really wanted to like A New York Winter's Tale but sadly felt the film failed to deliver a coherent story or believable characters. In order to understand what is happening, it really helps if you've read the book but if you're a fan of the book, you're likely to be disappointed. The film is well made and the cast try hard but ultimately A New York Winter's Tale is unsatisfying and lacks that most important ingredient - magic. Maybe it just proves that some novels really are unfilmable.
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