It's a little sad that Colin Farrell has outgrown roles that require him to wear raggedy sweaters and say things like "For fook's sake!" It had to happen, though. Farrell has always made a terrific bad boy, but he clearly knows he couldn't be a scamp forever, and he seems to be settling into some very serious, responsible-adult roles. Last year he played a doting, if heavy-drinking, father in Saving Mr. Banks. Now, in Akiva Goldsman's Winter's Tale, based on Mark Helprin's best-selling novel set in a mythical version of early 20th-century Manhattan, he plays Peter Lake, a petty criminal who tries to go straight, much to the dismay of the demonic, supernaturally gifted crime boss, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), who raised him from boyhood. As it turns out, Peter has some fookin' extraordinary powers himself, though he won't find out what they are until well into the following century.
If you haven't guessed already — and if you haven't read Helprin's book — you should know that Winter's Tale is laced heavily with magical woo-woo. If you're a reasonably rational human being, you might snort at the way Peter's consumptive love interest, Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), exclaims to her newspaper-publisher father (William Hurt): "The sicker I become, the more clearly I can see that everything is connected by light!" (Beams of CGI radiance glint around her.) But provided you know what you're in for, the first chunk of Winter's Tale — the romantic part, before Peter is consigned to being a boring old Jesus figure — offers some modest escapist pleasures, not least thanks to Farrell's sweet, earnest intensity and the presence of a rather spectacular flying white horse.
Because if having a horse in a movie is almost always a good idea, having a flying white horse ridden by Colin Farrell is pretty much the ne plus ultra. Farrell is an extraordinarily appealing actor, a 5-o'clock-shadow charmer. But even with those mad, Groucho Marx eyebrows — like two fat black caterpillars meeting on a leaf and saying "How d'you do?" — and his (now-diminished) reputation for being a party boy, on film Farrell has always come off as a contemplative fellow, one who carries worry with him wherever he goes. The role of Peter Lake requires him to be a shy, sexy heartthrob in the movie's first half and a savior in the second — he pulls it off as well as anyone could. And his first meeting with that white horse is more pleasingly earthbound than it is cartoonishly fantastical. Approaching this lovely creature, with its inquisitive eyes and fine, silver-gray forelock, he shows the humility of a stable boy and a sense of wonder at its otherworldly beauty. Horse and rider are a match — as you would expect, there's a spiritual connection — though later, Peter will appear shirtless with the feverish heiress Beverly, which is a different sort of magic altogether.
Unfortunately, it all goes south when Jennifer Connelly shows up as a modern-day newspaper columnist and superworried mom. That's not Connelly's fault — she's a fine, luminous actress. But that's when Winter's Tale switches from a lavish mystical fantasy into a ponderous fable about destiny and miracles and stuff. Goldsman has written heaps of screenplays, and the list of movies he's produced is even longer, but Winter's Tale is his feature directing debut — he hits all the beats, which often makes the proceedings feel perfunctory, and in the clinch, he overreaches for pathos. Still, he at least keeps the story moving smoothly enough. And the picture has a rich, handsome look, courtesy of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Even though the supermagical stuff is highly infused with CGI, Deschanel blends it seamlessly with brick-and-mortar reality.
Some of Winter's Tale is just flat-out pretty enough to work. Beverly and her family own a glorious fairy-tale mansion perched at the edge of a frozen lake — the scene is winter wonderland central, a confection of dazzling, sparkly whiteness. And though you wouldn't call his performance believable or realistic, Russell Crowe seems to be having a grand old time as a glowering villain: How often does he get to play the kind of guy who consults — and takes seriously — a bunch of enchanted glowing gems, or who has to bow and scrape when he meets with one of Beelzebub's loyal servants (played by Will Smith)? Winter's Tale, imperfect as it is, is that rare beast on the movie landscape: an unapologetic romance (for the first two-thirds, anyway) with attractive stars and special effects designed to give audiences something other than the experience of watching worlds get blown up. And even when he isn't flying, this horse is still pretty magnificent. You don't have to dress up nature that much to get close to magic.