Many years ago, when I was passionately interested in the works of Jonathan Carroll, a friend with similar interests advised me that Carroll recommended the works of Mark Helprin, an American writer who doesn’t appear to have even been published over here, let alone built a reputation.
Nevertheless, Waterstones had a more than decent import book section in those days, with a selection of Helprin, so I gave it a go. I can’t remember what I first read but I had four or so books at one point, including two of short stories, that I read and enjoyed, but the only one I’ve kept was the vast and sprawling, century-spanning Winter’s Tale (no connection with the late Shakespeare play), a story set in a superficially mundane New York, shot through with a heavy dose of South American magic realism.
After many years of attempts to bring the film to the screen – Martin Scorsese refused the Director’s role, calling the book unfilmable – writer and first time Director Akiva Goldsman achieved this in 2014, painting the film as a love story which, in one of its aspects, it is. I say achieved rather than succeeded, as the film was not a success, either commercially or artistically, and it is held in generally poor regard, which was why I didn’t go to see it in the cinema when it was released. For some reason, in Britain and Ireland, the film was re-titled A New York Winter’s Tale.
Of necessity, the film shrinks the book, excluding many things, amongst them one major character and story strand. Any kind of quasi-faithfulness to the story would be better served by a tv series of at least four episodes and a Game of Thrones-style budget. It emphasises the spinal story of Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), Beverley Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), set primarily in the Twentieth Century New York.
Peter Lake is a thief (middle-aged in the book, late-twenties here). A foundling set sail in a toy boat for America by immigrant parents refused access, Peter has grown into a master-burglar under the tutelage of gang boss Pearly but, having broken away from him, is now a target to be killed by Pearly’s omnipresent gang. Peter is rescued from certain death by a splendid white horse, appearing out of nowhere, that he calls Horse, but which is Athansor, a Guardian Angel.
Athansor leads Peter to rob the house of millionaire newspaper publisher Isaac Penn. The only person in residence is Penn’s elder daughter, Beverley, aged 21, who is dying of consumption and burning with fevers. She sleeps in a pavilion on the roof in winter, to stay cool, she is so hot that snow melts under her bare feet. She and Peter fall in love almost immediately.
Beverley has, at least, months to go. But here is where the film starts to lose its already tenuous grip. It began with a voiceover from Findlay about each of us being different, each of us containing a miracle that only we can perform, after which we become a star (as in a heavenly body as opposed to star and stage). It puts the film on a dodgy footing to begin with but now it rocks uncontrollably. Pearly is not merely an unusually cruel and hard gang boss, he is actually a demon from Hell, exchanged for fleshly form in order to frustrate miracles and blacken lives, to tip the balance their way (though it does’t seem to be working).
Peter Lake is, unknowingly, an agent of the other side, which is why he must die, and Beverley is his miracle: he will make her live. So, to destroy Peter, Pearly plans to kill Beverley. Peter, on Athansor, rides in to rescue her, which is only possible because Athansor, when he chooses, can unfold gigantic angel’s wings, made of light, and fly away.
He delivers her to her father’s home at Lake of the Coheeries in upstate New York, where Pearly cannot go, being bound to the Five Boroughs. The Lake is a quasi-mystical place in the book but substantially downplayed in the film, a wise decision on a practical basis, given it would need unwieldy exposition to fully introduce on film, but inconsistent with Goldsman’s decision to make Pearly a demon instead of just evil.
Anyway, he doesn’t have to leave New York, but call in a marker from another demonic gangboss whose turf includes Lake of the Coheeries. Beverley’s drink is poisoned: when she and Peter Lake make love for the first and only time, she dies in his arms (but not before she gets her one and only orgasm: there’s nice for you).
After Beverley’s funeral, Peter Lake returns to New York, allows Pearly to find him, sends Athansor away, is head-butted five times and thrown in the river to drown. Instead, he survives without a memory and lives for ninety-eight years physically unchanged.
Here’s another example of Goldsman’s inconsistency. The book has Peter and Athansor escaping by flying into a great grey cloudbank, wherein Peter loses his memory, returning to New York in the future of publication, 1983, to play out his final role, to fulfil his miracle in Beverley-speak. Instead, we get a mundane explanation for amnesia (the headbutts) and the idea that Peter Lake has lived almost a century without an identity or a memory (not even of the last ninety-eight years) or nobody spotting he isn’t growing old . By minimising the fantastical aspects of the book, Goldsman is setting up something he hasn’t got the means to handle, even if he saw it at all.
Pearly and Lucifer are still around, but that’s alright, they’re demons (and Lucifer is Will Smith, by the way). But Goldsman has made a rod for his own back when Peter Lake starts recovering his memory, aided by journalist Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly) because Beverely’s little sister Willa (who was 10 in 1916) is still around, alive, and physically and mentally active (she’s also played by a now elderly Eve Marie Saint), despite being nearly 110 years old. The time-gap in the book was only 67 years and therefore believable.
The ending is confused. Lucifer reprimands Pearly for focussing on Peter Lake not Beverley: he was her miracle, her love made him immortal. Pearly wants revenge so badly that he is allowed to become fully mortal. This allows him to pursue Peter, Virginia and her ten year old daughter Abby (who has terminal cancer) to Lake of the Coheeries, but it makes him vulnerable to a final death, which Peter administers. By now he knows: Beverley was not his Miracle, instead it’s Abby. He’s stayed alive to save her life, which he does, curing her in some unseen and unexplained manner (with one almighty bound…).
The film concludes wth Peter and Athansor riding off into the sky to become stars over another rapturous and New Age nonsensical monolgue from Beverely. Read the book, people.
Having said that, though the film is poor, and much of the acting is cursed with an artificiality derived from the dialogue, it has its moments and its emotions, even if these come from the viewer and not the cast. It’s odd to see Will Smith playing his small part dead straight, whilst Russell Crowe is allowed to go OTT for most of the film’s length, but that is part of the film’s mode. It is neither fish, fowl nor good red meat, and shows no signs of understanding it would be better to chose one of these, let alone which is best for it. The best that can be said for it is that it’s got me wondering how soon I can read the book again.