Like the frozen expanses of its most dramatic settings, “Winter’s Tale” is mostly hard, glittering surface. Colin Farrell as Peter Lake, a tortured time traveler straddling two lives a century apart in New York City, brings the only performance warm enough to penetrate it.
As an infant in 1895, Peter is left in a bobbing miniature boat to wash ashore in New York City by his immigrant parents after they are rejected at Ellis Isle. Fast-forward a generation and he’s a thief on the run from his former gang. In the midst of robbing an Upper West Side mansion, Peter encounters ephemeral pianist Beverly, who is 21, gorgeous and dying of consumption. Jessica Brown Findlay, who played Lady Sybil on “Downton Abbey,” is once again a doomed, rich damsel who falls for a bad boy beneath her station.
Farrell employs his trademark inverted-eyebrow gymnastics to great effect here, distracting from the ugliest variation on the bowl haircut since young Dick Whitman on “Mad Men.” He’s so fetching as a besotted beau that Findlay need only toss her mane about and make breathy declarations about the importance of light to make their few scenes together sing. Too bad the rest of the movie lumbers along like a shackled version of the sprawling novel on which it’s based.
Published 30 years ago, Mark Helprin’s book was adored for both its love story and its vividly drawn magical realism. First-time director Akiva Goldsman, the sci-fi screenwriter behind “I, Robot” and “I Am Legend,” focuses on the latter at the former’s expense, and not always successfully. His attempts at depicting fantasy — in particular Peter’s spirit animal, a white horse that sprouts iridescent wings at convenient moments — translate as Disney Channel kiddie kitsch.
As Peter’s nemesis, alpha-thug Pearly Soames, Russell Crowe plays it more like he’s Growly Ham. He pulls off a few genuinely sinister moments between bouts of shameless mugging. Will Smith as his boss, “Judge,” aka Lucifer, is too hilarious to fear, providing unintentional but welcome comic relief.
William Hurt as Beverly’s father and Eva Marie Saint as the 21st-century embodiment of Beverly’s younger sister add depth, but Jennifer Connelly barely makes an impression as a journalist who helps modern-day amnesiac Peter find clues to his past. Goldsman should have used a cheaper unknown and spent the savings on better props, like 100-year-old tombstones that don’t look freshly constructed by the art department.
Despite Farrell’s valiant efforts to heat things up, this Valentine’s Day opening is sentimental artifice in search of true heart.