The Dissolve recently featured an article (Found HERE) about the effect of sincerity on the viewing of recent overly-saccharine releases such as Labour Day; in it the author proposed that the success of these films relies heavily on the audience’s willingness to have an authentically heartfelt reaction to what is occurring on the screen, that in this age of spoof, subversion, meta-winking and general cynicism the only way that a film which takes itself seriously can function is if the audience puts down their guard and allows it to. As a conflicted cynic myself I am want to agree almost as much as I want to have such a heartfelt reaction to a movie whenever possible; I’d always prefer to exit a cinema effected but it’s not always easy.
Winter’s Tale is without a doubt a film that takes itself quite seriously: the bleached-bright shots of its stars staring into one another eyes and holding one another on horseback that hang beneath the closing credits cast the film in the mold of a grand romantic epic, while the wonky and overbearing narration suggests that the story is a thing of profound depth and beauty. The truth though is that, regardless of your approach the film is neither of those things, it’s nowhere near as good as it thinks it is, but nor, I feel, is it as bad as many would have you believe; it simply requires that you do believe.
What the promotional material and marketing department may be unwilling to tell you about Winter’s Tale is that it is very much a fantasy film in the fullest sense, not a romance movie with a flutter of magic here and there. It is the unexpected depth and detail of the movie’s mythological elements that make Winter’s Tale a hard story to take too seriously and thus flaw it as a film. Characters prattle on incessantly about light – which makes sense when we see the casually contrived way it can be used to create a map – they fly around New York on a winged horse as convincingly as Christopher Reeve did Metropolis and speak only in stilted nothings or grand speeches about destiny or demons, all of which beggar suspension of disbelief even before we see the Hendrix-shirt wearing Will Smith as Lucifer; but there are moments around these – smaller, dare I say subtler moments – that really do, in the right light, almost shine.
Though it mostly doesn’t work here there is still something to this story – with its strange combination of Shakespearean tropes (the only justification of the name) and supernatural cliches that lead to a somewhat muffled message about the complex miracle of life (I daresay it likely makes sense in the book) – and the cast is occasionally strong; though it’s the lesser known stars that stand out, hungrier as they are for the material. When Colin Farrell is own his own adventuring the film is a flat bore, but beside Jessica Brown Findlay he wakes up and brings some energy to his delivery, though he still pales beside her sincere efforts. Similarly Crowe has some moments of convincing villainy when up against her or Smith, but mostly seems happy to ham when left to his own devices; the essentially cameoing Kevin Corrigan out-mugging him in his brief scenes.
So it is that when the movie scales back and locks in on one or two characters, allows them to coexist and converse it begins to cohere; the brief escape to Coheeries, in which the film essentially becomes a Costume drama, is its strongest because the beats, while still extravagant, are recognizable if not entirely relatable. Then it falls apart with a misguided movement into the future which, while far too long to be an epilogue is far too short to allow us any opportunity for emotional involvement in the ‘epic’ climax which essentially consists of five broken cars and a Russel Crowe barfight. The moment of catharsis, the event that the film has been leading up to its entire length, is built around a character who we’ve really yet to even meet; the assumption being, I assume, that we will of course care about her because she is a child.
The conflict at the core of this film seems to be quite similar to that which plagues its writer, director and executive producer Akiva Goldsman. Goldsman has been the driving force behind some good and genuine pictures, but he’s also personally created some inexcusably bad ones and looking at a list of his works a clear distinction between the two arises. When he is working with a concept close to reality – a depression-era boxer or a brilliant but broken mathematician – he is able to craft authentic stories that we in the audience are able to attach ourselves to; however, when he is working on something speculative – superheroes or space travelers – he is liable to lose his way and leave us drifting apart from the drama.
No matter how hard you try when watching it Winter’s Tale will not work because it’s not a well enough made movie, but I don’t think this disproves the notion of audience responsibility. Instead it’s simply evidence that both sides need to be in sync for a sentimental connection to occur; the film needs to create in the cinema an environment in which such connections can be formed before we can even begin to try or fail to. Winter’s Tale doesn’t do that, it doesn’t sweep you away, it doesn’t create a convincing or a compelling new cinematic world but rather than bemoan it for making an attempt and failing I find myself more in awe of the many movies that succeed to do just that, now that i’ve seen just how high a hurdle it can be to clear.