SPOILERS GALORE. Just go see the movie now, then read this. You’ve been warned.
At John C Wright’s recommendation, my wife and I went to see this movie. We liked/loved it, so went to see it again with our two teenagers last night.
The opening voice-over explains, among other things, that we each have one miracle intended for one other person, and that we spend out lives looking for that other person to give them that miracle.
In New York in 1885, an immigrant couple and their baby, hinted to be Russian Jews, are turned away by immigration because the parents are consumptive. Desperate for their child to have a chance to live, they place him in a large model ship stolen from a display case on board the Russian ship they have been put aboard. They lower him in that model boat into the harbor, and he floats away.
21 years later, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) flees down a New York backstreet from a large crowd of bowler-hatted bad guys lead by Pearly Soames (Russel Crowe). He manages to close and lock a gate to slow his pursuers, but then slips and falls on the ice. He looks up, and sees a beautiful white horse, which drops to one knee to better allow him to mount. Just ahead of the evil mob, the horse and rider gallop away, only to have the horse turn and run back at the thugs – and then leap impossibly over the high gate and make good his escape. Pearly, seething, says: “He’s got the damn horse.”
Thus, the magic starts. For the remainder of the movie, we switch back and forth between the demonic Pearly and Peter, who is that orphaned baby now grown, and the angelic Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), a beautiful young woman dying of consumption. The white horse takes charge of Peter, leading him, first, on a night of robbery – Peter is a thief, and needs to fund his escape from New York and Pearly’s murderous wrath – and then parking him in front of Beverly’s house, a beautiful stone mansion, as the rest of her family leaves for a winter retreat to their house on the lake. Thinking that the horse is setting him to one last job, he breaks in, unaware that, at that moment, Beverly is taking a cooling bath for her fever.
Peter finds and cracks the safe just as Beverly, still damp an in night cloths, begins some flashy Brahms on the piano in the next room.
Of course, they fall instantly in love. Peter leaves, then saves Beverly from Pearly, who, we discover, is hell-bent (literally) on stopping whatever Peter’s miracle is – he is sure he is meant to heal Beverly, and so determines to kill her first.
The love story unfolds, but it is merely the occasion for the real story. Pearly, it is revealed, is a demon in the service of Lucifer (Will Smith), and seeks only to stop humans from delivering their miracles, to sow death and despair where life, light and hope would grow.
After seeing this movie, this snippet from a conversion story kept coming to mind:
For several seconds, God had raised the veil that separates the natural and super-natural—revealing a cosmic drama that earlier ages had taken for granted, but that for me was unthinkable. The very first thought I had when I saw the demons was that the typical medieval farmer had a more accurate understanding of our human condition—its perils and possibilities—than all of the smartest people I’d ever known.
The concept that a medieval farmer might understand reality better than a modern is so totally foreign to our well-schooled ears as to be jarring and seem nonsensical. Yet, every fairy tale that rings true assumes just exactly that ancient understanding – that there’s much more to the world than meets the eye, that there’s a battle going on in which we, our very selves, are both the prizes and minor combatants, and that it takes some sort of gift or miracle in addition to our own efforts to save us. To take the preeminent modern example, Lord of the Rings has a white wizard instead of a white horse, and Sauron standing in for Lucifer, but the basic story is the same: an insignificant individual is given a task he did not ask for, must battle against an evil he cannot defeat by himself, yet triumphs at great personal cost due to help both human and divine. That help is sometimes seen, and sometimes hidden, but it is always there.
The funny thing is that almost all gigantic hit movies tap into this understanding, which might make one suspect that film critics would be motivated to appreciate it. Films that tens of millions of people want to see over and over again, without any exceptions I can come up with off the top of my head, always include the downtrodden hero or heroine who is miraculously aided in the pursuit of a goal not entirely of their choosing, and opposed by evil forces beyond their strength. Sometime the miracle is the Force, or superpowers, or just an amazing set of coincidences that put the hero right where he needs to be; sometimes the evil is the Galactic Empire, or an alien invasion, or just a dumb giant chunk of ice; sometimes the hero is literally a poor schlub, sometimes an apparently successful person with a secret, sometimes someone whose poverty is a crippling of the soul. If your hero is not an Everyman, at least to the extent that all of us can see at least a little of ourselves in him, who fights valiantly against impossible forces, and triumphs through “luck” and pluck, you just don’t have much of a story.
This is just basic storytelling, after all. Sure, once in a great while a great movie like The Usual Suspects will come along, where none of these elements seem to be present. (It would be a fun exercise to show how these elements are present even in that movie.) For every one like that, there are dozens which try to avoid the classic story arc – and crash into oblivion. Similarly, there are attempts at the perennial story that fail for a variety of reasons – inept storytelling, poor execution, actors not up to the task.
Winter’s Tale is not one of them – the acting is superb, the cinematography beautiful, the story both familiar and novel. Yet this movie bombed at the box office. Here’s a snippet from a review chosen more or less at random:
However, despite suspending disbelief after I realized that there was a supernatural element to these things, I still found a few things to be troubling about the story. For starters, a lot of the main plot elements were left extremely vague. The movie didn’t really explain why Russell Crowe’s Pearly was so keen on killing Peter Lake. Lucifer even addresses this and we still don’t get a good answer about it. Bigger than that, it’s never explained why there’s such a battle going on between the angels and demons. That’s a pretty huge thing to gloss over. I understand that the main focus of the story is meant to be Peter and Beverly’s love, but with a weak backstory that leaves more questions unanswered than not, the film is built on a weak foundation that could fall apart so quickly that the Pegasus looking out for Peter won’t have time to save him.
The writer, typically, does not get or at least does not acknowledge this ancient understanding. He wants the writes to be more explicit about the motivations of the devil. This is like blaming Homer for not adequately explaining the motivation of Ares in the Iliad. Dude is the god of war – ’nuff said. Devil is the enemy of all that is good.
I wrote the following comment to his review:
Any fairy tale that touches us in any way has, at its heart, a love and a hatred that simply are, in a way we don’t understand but know to be true nonetheless. The point of the movie, as with many timeless stories, is that there is a personal hatred in the world that has nothing to do with anything any one of us has personally done, and yet there is a personal love that each of us knows that predates, as it were, our very existence.
We don’t have to have it explained to us why Pearly hates Peter and wants to kill him any more than we have to have it explained to us why Peter and Beverly fall for each other – but, if we did, the movie nicely explains: Pearly claimed the orphan Peter off the streets, raised him up as a thief, saw him as a possible heir – and then Peter turned good on him, unwilling to kill in order to steal. Pearly explains to Beverly as he’s about to kill her that the killing is the point – the thieving is just the occasion. The more innocent the victim – Pearly speaks of his love of virginal blood on the snow – the better.
Yes, the trailer misleads by presenting this as a traditional love story, when it’s a love story of an entirely different sort. That love – spoken of as “The Universe” by the voice-over, but as “God” by Pearly – is more pervasive and subtle than the easily understood attraction between Peter and Beverly. That’s the love this story was about. Peter and Beverly are a part and an illustration of this overarching love story.
So, while you raise some valid issues in your review, reading it for me was like reading some of the early reviews of The Matrix, where it was clear that the reviewer had missed entirely what the story was about – thinking it was about time machines, for example.
You may have to buy the DVD or wait for Netfix to see this movie – it’s all but out of the theaters around here – but do so. I’m not sure it’s a great movie, but it is a very good one, and it is wonderful to see good and evil portrayed with any sort of art and truth. We should all support such efforts.