Peter Lake had never considered himself to be a lucky man. In fact, quite the opposite.
After all, his Russian immigrate parents—turned away from Ellis Island for health problems in the early 1900s—had set him adrift, alone in New York Harbor when he was just an infant. That's hardly good luck. But, I suppose some would say it was fortunate that he was soon found, rescued and given a chance at life in America.
Then, when he came of age, the difficulty of merely earning an honest wage pushed him into taking up thievery under the tutelage of the most ruthless ruffian in Lower Manhattan, one Pearly Soames. That was like stepping into the employ of the devil himself. Then again, it was a blessing that he was smart enough to eventually see the true malevolence of the man. And that he managed to run away with at least his skin intact.
Then there was the day Pearly and his gang had Peter cornered in a dark alley with murder in their eyes—and Peter came upon a marvelous white horse. The beast was just standing there in that alley as if it was waiting for him to be chased there. And when he climbed on its back, it was as if the animal had wings. Together, they easily outran Pearly and his menacing men.
So, perhaps the truth is that Peter Lake is indeed the luckiest of lads. For all the events of his hardscrabble life have led him to this point. Here he stands looking at a young woman who has just caught him mid-burglary—and she happens to be the most beautiful, kind, sweet-tempered and forgiving soul who ever graced this weary world.
She smiles at him. She offers him tea. And he is smitten. It doesn't matter that this 21-year-old angel is at death's door, stricken with consumption. That the doctors say she only has but a few months left to live. For Peter has finally found his one pure object of adoration and love. He's finally come face-to-face with something he thought he'd never find: the reason that he was placed on this earth.
"Inside everyone …," his adopted father had told him. "Inside everyone there is a miracle, meant for one person." And Peter knows now who his personal miracle is meant for. For surely it is possible to love so truly, so completely, that even death stands aside.
If you can swallow the idea of an eternal love-at-first-glance, then you could say that Peter is definitely a devoted Joe. In the face of even demonic death threats, he's willing to leap into any situation to defend his lady love. And even when the worst happens, he simply won't give up—trudging inexplicably on through a hundred years in hopes of finding his true purpose and fulfilling the destiny he believes he's been given. And he believes wholeheartedly that the power of love can accomplish great wonders.
We also see that, at his core, this part-time thief wants to be a good man. It becomes evident when Peter realizes that Pearly is more interested in public angst and anguish than he is in wealth: Peter determines that he'll go out of his way to cause as little harm to others as possible.
If that "power of love" theme had been translated into a clear struggle between devilish darkness and the light created by faith and trust in God Himself, then the spirituality of this storied world would have been much easier to follow. As it is, though, the good vs. evil battle is more muddy magic than ethereal enlightenment.
Darkness is easy to spot—Pearly repeatedly has to go to his shadow-hugging boss Lucifer for permission to carry out his wicked schemes. And Lucifer, the "Judge," snarls back at him while revealing razor-sharp teeth. Pearly himself lets his demonic true self show through from time to time. His face splinters with cracks and creases and his needle-point teeth gnash. At one juncture Pearly snaps the neck of a virgin and paints a revelatory vision with the young man's blood. And he speaks with Lucifer about the progress of their efforts to smash the faith of all humans. "Miracles are down by 50%," he reports.
Goodness and light in this struggle, however, are much more difficult to pin down, and certainly never biblical. God is mentioned once by Pearly when he wonders if "maybe God isn't all that benevolent … maybe He just wants a good fight." Beyond that, all we get is mumblings about a well-meaning "universe" that loves all equally, and an undefined "light" that Beverly believes "binds us all together." Spiritual guides—such as the white horse Peter finds—are mentioned, but their connection to anything heavenly is never more than nebulous. In fact, the best this tale can do is talk about how those who die gain angelic wings and end up sparkling in the night sky as stars. [Spoiler Warning] By movie's end, Peter reunites with his lost love Bev in exactly such a twinkling cluster.
Peter's adopted father appears to be of Native American descent; he speaks of their family's 10 spiritual songs and how each person carries a miracle in his soul. Large gems are used to refract light and magically reveal someone's location.
We're shown a silhouette of Beverly's body through her backlit cotton gown and by way of a shadow cast on the wall of a tent. We also see her bare back on two different occasions when she slips out of her clothes. On one of those occasions, she walks into a pool of cooling water. On the other, she entices Peter into her room, standing before him naked.
Beverly attests, "I'm 21 and I've never been kissed on the mouth." But Beverly's dad tells Peter, "She sleeps in her tent on the roof. And you do not." Not that such an admonition stops them. Peter and Beverly—naked but covered by a sheet—embrace and kiss passionately while having sex. (Their movements and sounds are very realistic.)
Pearly flaunts a buff torso while a (dressed) girl lies on his bed in the background.
Rough and tumble slugfests between Peter and Pearly—backed by a group of pike- and sword-packing bad guys—take place on a few occasions. Generally Peter gets the worst of it. He's pummeled, punched and viciously kicked when he's down. Pearly head-butts Peter in the face, leaving him bloodied and reeling, then pushes him off the Brooklyn Bridge. Pearly also breaks a waiter's neck, leaving a small pool of blood on his white tablecloth. He shoots at Peter and friends with a pistol, and he threatens Beverly with a large hunting knife.
Peter grabs a chunk of metal and stabs someone repeatedly in the neck. He breaks a thug's arm as the guy reaches for him through a fence. He slashes at assailants with a knife. Thugs are sent to their death when a frozen lake cracks beneath their feet—dropping several cars and the men into the icy depths.
A man's lips appear to have been sewn shut.
Crude or Profane Language
One s-word. One "b‑‑ch." Two uses of "d‑‑n," once with God's name. Jesus' name is abused twice."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Peter and Beverly drink champagne at a New Year's Eve party. Peter discusses wine with Beverly's father. A "fallen angel" slips a drug of some sort into Bev's drink. (This substance eventually contributes to her death.)
Other Negative Elements
Peter's parents smash a display case and steal a model of a ship. Peter has bundles of valuables that he's stolen.
Based on Mark Helprin's dense 1983 novel, Winter's Tale nurtures a love-conquers-all theme, proffers appealing period-piece aesthetics, and boasts attractive actors. But those pretty bits can't keep the pic from being little more than a mishmash of convoluted sentimentality that's further sullied by spiritual counterfeits.
Destiny, magic, time travel, Lucifer in Manhattan, winged souls in the stars. It all gets tossed at the screen—the drama routinely veering from overwrought demonic bombast to irrational treacle-oozing devotion. And after the rambling new-agey spirituality finally runs its narrative course and Colin Farrell rides his winged horse into the sky … well, none of it makes much sense at all.