- - Thursday, February 13, 2014

There’s magic in this movie, in the book that inspired it and, above all, in the city that inspired the book. The first, however, contains the least magic.

Movies based on books are almost invariably disappointing, at least to those who know the source material. Even a master screenwriter such as Akiva Goldsman couldn’t take a 750-page novel and satisfyingly condense it into a two-hour film. But he has managed to give audiences something of the book’s spirit — which is special indeed.

Mark Helprin has written more than one love letter to New York, but none so loving as his 1983 novel “Winter’s Tale.” The most disappointing thing about the movie adaptation isn’t the fact that some of its characters have been altered and others excised. It’s that its most important character — the city itself — is mostly missing.

It starts out with such promise, too. In the rafters of Grand Central Station, a man rummages through a box of secrets. The man is played by Colin Farrell, an actor who seems ageless — and thankfully so, as the character he plays stops aging. The man finds a plaque that reads “City of Justice.”

It’s not how most people would describe New York 2014. But we’re not there long. First, we’re swept back to New York 1895, when an immigrant Russian couple is denied entry. Thinking the new country is their infant son’s only hope, they place him on a model ship — the City of Justice — and push him toward the city.

We meet that child 21 years later. It’s one of the film’s many miracles that the 37-year-old Mr. Farrell is convincing as a young man. Peter Lake, as he’s been christened, made it to America but is not quite living the dream. Bounced from orphanage to orphanage, he is the most talented of a gang of thieves led by the inveterately bad Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Peter Lake (in the novel, he’s never just “Peter” or “Lake”) has left the band and struck out on his own. But no one abandons Pearly Soames, so he spends his days and nights lying low in the city that never sleeps, almost meeting his end until he’s saved, quite magically, by a beautiful white horse.

Mr. Farrell passes as a young man, but there’s still plenty of disbelief to be suspended here. Like so many of the Bard’s plays, one of which gives this story its name, “Winter’s Tale” is filled with unlikely occurrences of the supernatural sort, though Pearly does his worst to keep them to a minimum. One character notes (to Pearly’s approval): “Miracles are down by half — more, if you count Brooklyn.”

But Peter Lake’s life is about to get more interesting — and long. Out to rob a rich home one quiet day, he finds the eldest daughter still there, alone. Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a consumptive who looks rather sumptuous for being so close to death. “The fever can make things wonderful,” she says, and for her the world is filled with light amid the darkness of her doom.

This unlikely pair immediately fall in love. Even more unlikely, her father approves. But Pearly does not. And he has someone very powerful on his side: the Devil, played with the right sense of resignation by Will Smith in a delightful cameo.

This is a tale of good versus evil. And that’s a key thing Mr. Goldsman, best known for his “A Beautiful Mind” script, captures in his directorial debut here. The world’s great cities teem with anonymous people — each with a story to tell. We look for purpose but have trouble finding it.

Writers like Mark Helprin give us comfort in our search. Mr. Goldsman’s best quality might be his understanding of this subtle point — even if his movie is, at times, rather less than subtle.

1/2

TITLE: “Winter’s Tale”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Mark Helprin

RATING: PG-13 for violence and some sensuality

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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