Since it was first published in 1983, Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” has attracted a large cult following of dazzled literati unsure what hit them. At close to 800 pages, the book’s an overstuffed epic set in a magical-realist Manhattan, both in the years before World War I and in the modern day; it features flying horses, abandoned infants, enchanted lovers, and mysterious realms just out of sight up the Hudson River. It’s a big, chewy read, and to turn it into a movie you’d need a meat tenderizer.
Just why you’d want to turn “Winter’s Tale” into a movie is another question, one that goes unanswered by Akiva Goldsman, wielder of said meat tenderizer. A celebrated Hollywood screenwriter (“A Beautiful Mind,” “The Da Vinci Code”) making his film-directing debut, Goldsman takes Helprin’s book — a work overflowing with events, ideas, characters, passions — and pounds away at it until all that’s left is mush.
A very specific kind of mush, to be sure: date-night mush. “Winter’s Tale” has been transformed into one of those pudding-brained romances with fringes of fantasy, where true love is aided by heavenly messengers and remarkable coinky-dinks and where the heart triumphs over time, death, and every curveball a screenwriter can throw. Such movies — “The Lake House” (2006) is probably the silliest and thus the most representative of the genre — are traditionally enjoyed by a subtype of filmgoer who should know better yet happily prefers not to, whether she’s experiencing it next to a significant other quietly gnawing his arm off or watching it for the 24th time on TBS. And, honestly, there ain’t nothing wrong with that. Unless you’re Mark Helprin.
In Goldsman’s grand reduction of “Winter’s Tale,” Colin Farrell plays Peter Lake, who as a baby was abandoned at Ellis Island by his Russian parents and raised by a Native American (Graham Greene). This would explain his Irish accent. We meet him as an adult, a practiced burglar of New York’s Gilded Age mansions and in flight from his one-time gangster boss, a nasty piece of work named Pearly Soames. As played, fearsomely, by Russell Crowe, Pearly looks like Curly from the Three Stooges gone over to the Dark Side, and it’s giving nothing away to say the character’s Satanic tendencies are not metaphorical. Actually, Pearly’s a lesser demon working for the Big Guy himself, who lives in New York’s sewers and is played by a tragically miscast Major Hollywood Star. Between the two of them, “Winter’s Tale” develops a bad case of deviled ham.
Through the aid of the aforementioned magical horse, Peter is whisked away uptown, where he burgles the home and heart of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a pre-Raphaelite beauty who is slowly dying of consumption. Findlay made it through two seasons of “Downton Abbey” before the writers killed her off in childbirth, and her chances here aren’t all that hot, either. She may want to consider hiring a less vengeful agent.
The scene in which Peter and Beverly meet and fall in love — her publisher father (William Hurt) is away, the house is sunlit and empty — has just enough humor to keep it from swooning. Farrell and Findlay establish a rapport as privileged as it is bonkers, and the film’s production design (Naomi Shohan) and cinematography (Caleb Deschanel) offer strikingly atmospheric visuals of a city on the cusp of the modern age. Images of Pearly’s gang in their identical plug hats and long black Ulsters suggest a Magritte painting of the gangs of New York. Elsewhere, though — notably Beverly’s wintry Hudson River estate — you glimpse the cold, computer-generated scaffolding through the Edwardian finery.
Having jettisoned almost all of Helprin’s subplots and subsidiary characters, Goldsman is free to follow his hero into the story’s 2014 sequences, where a supernaturally youthful Peter befriends a stressed out single mother (Jennifer Connelly) and runs into an old acquaintance who, if my math works out right, should be about 112. She’s played by the lovely and vibrant Eva Marie Saint, who may have appeared with Brando in “On the Waterfront” but who isn’t that old.
But Goldsman isn’t interested in logic — not even that of his invented world — and he doesn’t seem to care about the book or anyone who may have loved it. What energizes this strange, ungainly movie is its faith in the gooey banalities of romantic fantasy, as expressed — endlessly — in Beverly’s voice-over narration. That the nighttime stars are actually human souls who no longer need to be reborn on Earth, that we’re all destined for that one special someone, that we each have one miracle in us (just one?), and that there’s a pattern to it all, even if we can’t make it out. These are the dreams of children, and the movies, it hardly needs to be restated, are one of the greatest machines for dreaming invented. But read the book if you want to be treated like a grown-up.