If you remember 1980’s “Somewhere in Time,” a romantic fantasy in which Christopher Reeve time-travels so he can fall in love with Jane Seymour, you either dismiss it as piffle (with a great John Barry score) or you adore it with an all-consuming passion, rewatching it periodically with tissues at hand, and maybe even making a pilgrimage to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island where it was filmed.
I suspect “Winter’s Tale,” which defies logic in new and exciting ways as it pushes together lovers played by Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay (“Downton Abbey”), will engender a similar minority of dedicated, swooning admirers.
For the rest of us, piffle this is and piffle it will always be. The sparks between Farrell and Brown Findlay are undeniable, but “Winter’s Tale” gives us too little of their love story, opting instead to lose itself in magical mumbo-jumbo while at the same time trying to keep one foot in the real, recognizable world.
In 1895, two Russian immigrants (played by Matt Bomer and Lucy Griffiths) are turned away from Ellis Island because of the husband’s respiratory ailments. Determined to make a better life for their son, they put the child in a model ship, lower him in the Atlantic and send him toward the shore.
Jump ahead to 1916, where that baby has grown up to become Peter Lake (Farrell, 38) — and if you think a foundling and a 21-year-old Colin Farrell is a lot to digest in the first five minutes, strap yourself in. The first time we see Lake, he’s running away from the henchmen of crime boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), who had been Lake’s mentor. Lake gets away, naturally, by hopping onto a white horse that can fly.
Being rescued by the Tri-Star logo gets the ball rolling on a plot that includes miracles, Satan, terminal illness, demon gangs of New York, ballroom dancing and a 107-year-old female editor-in-chief of a major Manhattan newspaper.
Adapting the novel by Mark Helprin, writer-director Akiva Goldsman (whose range of bad screenplays covers everything from “Batman & Robin” to the Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind”) keeps throwing fate and destiny and magical realism at the screen, but he doesn’t strike that delicate balance in which the audience chooses to just accept everything and go along for the ride.
Where “Winter’s Tale” achieves the spark it so desperately chases is when it slows down enough for Farrell to pitch woo at Findlay Brown’s beautiful, doomed heiress. Stricken with consumption, she runs a constant fever and must keep the windows open so that the wintry air can keep her cool. Anyone who mourns the loss of Lady Sybil on “Downton Abbey” knows that this actress has a gift for falling in love with working-class Irishmen, and those talents are in full effect here.
The film grinds its gears when it tries to make its fantasy elements run alongside real-world logic: Will we buy that Peter Lake can live for a century without aging so that he can fulfill his destiny? Sure, why not. But the moment the film trots out Eva Marie Saint (still radiant after all these years) as a centenarian who’s still running the family business, that’s just too many tonal plates to spin.
It also doesn’t help that we reach a point where it’s apparent that “Winter’s Tale” is about to spend a great deal of time tying up its least interesting storyline, in which the nefarious Soames must stop Lake from doing humanity a solid.
When “Winter’s Tale” makes its way onto formats that let you watch the Farrell/Findlay Brown scenes, enjoy their romance. In the meantime, it’s not worth listening to the rest of the love song just to get to the hooks.