"Winter's Tale" is so obviously a passion project, so much a labor of love for industry veteran Akiva Goldsman, that you'd like to be able to say it's a complete success. It isn't, but the parts that do succeed, especially the fervor between stars Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay, provide such lush, emotional magic that unabashed romantics will be pleased.
Co-produced, written and directed by Goldsman, "Winter's Tale" has been drastically pared from Mark Helprin's nearly 700-page 1983 literary blockbuster. That novel is so complex and massive the film's story of love as a miracle that can save us all feels as much suggested by characters and themes of the original as it does an adaptation.
Though he's recently done directing on television's "The Fringe," Goldsman is best known as a screenwriter on projects such as "The Da Vinci Code," "Cinderella Man" and his Oscar-winning work on "A Beautiful Mind," credits that indicate he has never been shy about taking on emotional situations.
That tendency was given a terrible wrench when Goldsman's wife died suddenly of a heart attack while he was working on this script. When he was able to return to writing, Goldsman told The Times' Glenn Whipp, "the book suddenly went from something I loved to the only thing that mattered," and he decided to direct the material as well.
Before the romance fully takes hold, "Winter's Tale" lets us know that it's set in a kind of alternate-universe New York, a world much like our own but one where magic and the supernatural are factors and the clash between good and evil is fought out one life at a time.
Setting up this universe's rules is one of "Winter's Tale's" weaker points: There is so much to tell us that it's hard to take it all in. Suffice it to say that in this world helpful spirit animals magically appear, individuals have a shot at ascending to the heavens and becoming stars when they die, and the devil and his demons take human form, so much the better to stop miracles that are victories for the other side.
Love, it will come as no surprise, is the biggest wonder of all. The key piece of information "Winter's Tale" insists on is that "inside each of us is a miracle, a miracle intended for one person alone." The good forces in the universe try to aid this process, the evil ones to stop it in its tracks.
"Winter's Tale" visits this world in three years — 1895, 1916 and 2014 — and thanks to Caleb Deschanel's gorgeous cinematography, one of the film's strengths, it looks luminous and magical at all times.
After a brief prologue, we meet protagonist Peter Lake (Farrell) in 1916. He's a master thief on the run from former boss Pearly Soames, head of the Short Tails Gang, who is so unhappy with Peter going out on his own he wants to kill him.
Seriously overplayed by Russell Crowe (another of the film's problems), Pearly is not just a vengeful gangster, he's a full-fledged demon in league with the devil himself, bound and determined to keep those personal miracles from happening.
Making things difficult for Pearly is Athansor, an honest-to-god flying horse who happens to be Peter's helpful spirit guide. This gorgeous animal, played by an all-white Andalusian named Listo, elevates every scene he's in, both literally and metaphorically.
It's Athansor who leads Peter to Beverly Penn ("Downton Abbey's" Brown Findlay), a wealthy newspaper magnate's daughter who just happens to be a) drop-dead gorgeous and b) burning up with an advanced case of consumption that threatens to end her life at any moment. "What," Peter says to Athansor, "have you gotten me into?"
Say what you will about the rest of "Winter's Tale" (and people will), there is real magic between Brown Findlay and Farrell in their scenes together, which the film's carefully crafted atmospheric visuals do their best to capture and enhance. This is shamelessly romantic, ultra-sentimental material, so anyone yearning for something reminiscent of Lars von Trier or Quentin Tarantino had best look elsewhere.
Once "Winter's Tale's" convoluted plot leaves this couple and goes down other paths, much of the magic leaves with it. Though Eva Marie Saint has a lovely cameo, many of the other actors, including Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt as Beverly's father, don't seem to have a firm grasp on their parts or where they fit into this winding saga.
Because it is fearlessly sincere and not totally successful, "Winter's Tale" is easy to mock. But it is also hard not to admire its willingness to go all out in its quest for the grandest of romantic gestures. Magic like that is hard to come by, both on screen and off.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence and some sensuality
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
In general release