A New York Winter’s Tale (aka Winter’s Tale) review: cold in the city

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Winter's Tale red light Colin Farrell

A leaden, charmless movie that is unable to commit to its own fantasy. So implausible that even Colin Farrell’s own Irish accent sounds fake.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Colin Farrell and Russell Crowe

I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of “magic realism”

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Thank you, Winter’s Tale movie — aka A New York Winter’s Tale in the U.K. in order that, I suspect, it not be confused with Shakespeare, which was never going to happen — for confirming what I’ve always felt about the weasel phrase “magic realism”: that it is a feeble, lazy attempt to dress up in literary pretensions an inability to fully commit to fantasy. This might not be true of the Mark Helprin novel this is based on; I haven’t read it and can’t comment in that direction. But it most certainly true of Akiva Goldsman’s leaden, charmless adaptation, which appears to believe that it can get away with making not one lick of sense at all, because Magic Realism.

I mean, look: A baby set adrift far out in New York harbor in 1895 makes it to land and survives. I could maybe buy this. I can’t buy that 20 years later, in 1915, he has aged almost 40 years and speaks with an Irish accent and is Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks, Epic). (How implausible is this film? Even Farrell’s own actual Irish accent sounds fake.) I mean, Farrell is a good-looking guy and all, but he cannot pass for 20 years old. Nor even 30. The accent is, I suspect, meant to be explained by the baby’s having been found and raised by Russell Crowe’s (Man of Steel, Broken City) demonic gangster, which wouldn’t even make sense if Crowe’s Irish accent weren’t as atrocious as it is. Anyway, in 1915, a beautiful white pegasus rescues Farrell as he is about to be killed by Crowe and his henchmen, because Crowe is majorly pissed off at Farrell for no reason that is ever shared with us. Again: I might could buy that Crowe is a demon, just because, but even a demon needs a reason to be angry at one particular person, otherwise he’d be this pissed off at everyone all the time. Right? And he isn’t.

The flying horse is pretty much bullshit, though. Mostly because no one else can see Colin Farrell flying around Manhattan on a white steed? Either people are blind, or they’re so jaded that Colin Farrell on a white steed a hundred feet above Fifth Avenue is an everyday occurrence. Either concept has fantasy potential. Neither concept is broached. It’s just magic and no one cares. Because. Okay?

Something about destiny, and then Farrell is breaking into a mansion along Central Park — he’s a thief, which makes this probably the most plausible thing that happens in the movie. Inside is a young woman (Jessica Brown Findlay) who is dying — beautifully, oh my goodness, so beautifully — of consumption, which in this universe also comes with a fever so feverish that she has to sleep outside in the winter air in order to keep herself from burning up. This allows Goldsman — who didn’t just write the screenplay but directed, too — to do up a sort of Gilded Age J. Peterman outdoor sleeping chamber on the roof of a Central Park mansion. Isn’t it terribly romantic? No, it isn’t.

They fall in love, of course, which also isn’t romantic, though the movie desperately hopes we will see it as such without bothering in the least to attempt to make us feel it. Nothing here goes beyond the merest suggestion of what it’s supposed to be, if it even goes that far. Need some big bad evil? Boom! Here’s Will Smith (Men in Black III, Seven Pounds) as Lucifer in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. In 1915. Because. Need someone to make us go awwwww? Boom! Here’s a little girl dying of cancer. That is the extent of her characterization: she is cute and little and dying of cancer. Oh, and she has red hair. The red hair will be Important.

This isn’t even a load of blarney, because that would imply that there’s even a little something bewitching to be found here.

I haven’t even broached the magical-because-why-not fact that Farrell ends up living for a century in New York without aging, and without even remembering his name, and without even having to deal with landlords who want to kick him out of cheap rent-controlled apartments, because he lives above the ceiling in Grand Central Terminal. (Now there’s an NYC fantasy for ya: Dude lives for a century at one address and is paying only $13 a month in rent, thanks to rent control.)

The sad thing — which we can appreciate now with awful hindsight — is that everything Goldsman has done in the past has been building to this. This is his first feature film as director, but oh, the scripts he has written! The incoherence of Batman and Robin, the sentimental tripe of A Beautiful Mind, the travesty toward speculative fiction that is I, Robot: if you could throw them in a blender, you might get something approaching this pile-on of asking-to-be-smacked wishful thinking about life and love and death and time. We all have a miracle to share with a special someone! When we die, we fly up to the sky and become a star. If we live to be 108 years old, we can have milkshakes for lunch, damn what the doctor said!

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Thu, Feb 20, 2014 10:34pm

so… not good, then?

reply to  bronxbee
Thu, Feb 20, 2014 10:38pm

Apparently Neil Gaiman and I are the only people who actually liked it. He has read the book. I haven’t. Of course, I am a huge sucker for magical realism. Also, I had been awake for almost 30 hours at the time I saw it. That may have been a factor.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Drave
Thu, Feb 20, 2014 11:04pm

I read Gaiman’s essay. I wish I had seen the same movie he saw.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jan 26, 2016 5:11pm

Kind of relieved that Gaiman likes it. I don’t think it’s a good film by any means, but I am weirdly obsessed with it. I’ve seen it on cable like four times. Although the weed probably had something to do with that.

Hank Graham
Hank Graham
Fri, Feb 21, 2014 8:20pm


I absolutely love the book, and given what I’ve heard from you and everyone I know who has seen it, I’ll wait for the dvd. Maybe I’ll see enough of what I loved in the book to like the movie, but it’s sounding like I’m hoping in vain. “Leaden” and “charmless” are the antithesis of everything I loved about the book.

Kinda what I was worried about when I heard Akiva Goldsman was doing this. I guess they can’t all be “Cloud Atlas.”

You also need to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” The really good books that made critics go invent the term “magic realism” are really good, and are NOT conflicted about their embrace of the fantastic.

The conflict is coming from folks who don’t want to admit they like fantasy. Think of the actors giving interviews about their work in the recent “Battlestar Galactica” who kept saying it wasn’t science fiction, because it was about *real* people’s problems and attitudes. Think of David Langford’s long-running fanzine, “Ansible,” which has at least one listing, every month, of literary critics and commentator dismissing science fiction and fantasy, and all their fans. (There’s even a link on his website so that you can see random samplings from the “As Others See Us” pieces.) Think of Margaret Atwood and Alfonso Cuaron claiming they weren’t making science fiction (Atwood about “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and Cuaron on “Children of Men”) when they clearly were.

There is good magic realism out there. Although it sounds like this movie isn’t one of them.

Hank Graham
Hank Graham
reply to  Hank Graham
Fri, Feb 21, 2014 8:24pm

And, as a side note, I’ll always have a soft spot for David Mitchell, who was asked once what he called the type of “magic realism” he’d used in “Cloud Atlas.”

“I call it science fiction,” he replied.

He was also pleased with the film adaptation: “It’s also got a flying snowmobile that shoots lasers!”

My kind of guy. :)

reply to  Hank Graham
Fri, Feb 21, 2014 11:00pm

You also need to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” The really good books that made critics go invent the term “magic realism” are really good, and are NOT conflicted about their embrace of the fantastic.

This. One Hundred Years of Solitude completely blew my mind, and I still consider it one of the best books I’ve ever read.

I do think that, while magical realism isn’t separate from fantasy, it’s a distinct kind of fantasy; it arose out of a specific cultural context — the “Boom” of Latin American literature in the 60s and 70s — and employs fantasy (and the mixing of the fantastic and the mundane) more as symbolic elements reflecting the inner lives of characters and communities, not necessarily in a straightforward, logical, world-building way. When MaryAnn expresses frustration with it — it’s ambiguous, it doesn’t make sense, it’s magic but no one seems to care or even notice — it’s actually a feature, not a bug.

Doesn’t mean the movie does it well, of course.

Tonio Kruger
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Feb 22, 2014 1:52am

If you have ever read MaryAnn’s review of Like Water for Chocolate, you’d find it a bit hard to believe that it’s the magic realism MaryAnn has an issue with in regard to this movie. After all, LWfC had a lot of magic realism too.

Fri, Feb 21, 2014 11:05pm

Another handy trick: if you call your book “magical realism”, you don’t have to listen to those annoying fantasy fans who want things like consistent characterisation, or for the magic to be more developed than “whatever the plot needs to happen at this moment”.

I’ve never been a fan of Goldsman; I see him as the sort of scriptwriter who always goes for the path more trodden. Even after this, he’s booked for scripting the two sequels to Divergent.

This sounds like paint-by-numbers without the paint. There’s a swatch labelled “romantic”, but nobody actually bothered to fill it in with romance.

Tuberculosis really isn’t pretty. Unless you have an army of servants to carry away all the blood-soaked rags.