Rated: PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 3; Language 4; Sex/Nudity.
Our Star rating (1-5): 2.
Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone seewhat is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things…
Based on the fantasy novel by Mark Helprin (unread by me, but panned by those who have read it), director/writer Akiva Goldsman is a supernatural fantasy tale that spans the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the present 21st. The film opens with a female voiceover declaring, “Magic is everywhere around us. You just have to look.” Like an ancient Greek myth, the story begins in 1895 with the unusual launching of the baby Peter Lake by his distraught would be-immigrant parents who are being sent back to Europe because the husband is in bad health. Wrapping the infant in a blanket, they place him in a large ship model and launch him toward land, much as Moses was placed in a basket of reeds and set afloat on the River Nile. They apparently are willing to give him up so that he can find a better life in America.
Jump ahead a couple of decades, and we discover that the child survived and has grown up to become a thief under the tutelage of the man who raised him, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Pearly is no ordinary master criminal but actually a demon who owes no allegiance except to a master demon and servant of Beelzebub known only as “The Judge” (Will Smith), to whom he reports deep beneath the streets of New York City.
One night when Peter has broken in to a mansion he hears a dynamic Brahms piece being played on a piano. The pianist is Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), consumptive heiress and grand beauty. Peter forgets all about robbing the place as they talk. Witty and charming, she is able to hold her own against his own considerable charm. Beverly is just 21 but faced with a death sentence. She says that the sicker she becomes, the more she perceives “that everything is connected by light.” Suddenly everything in the room is connected by ethereally looking light beams.
The two have fallen instantly in love, but True Love has a steep slope to climb. There’s the evil Pearly with whom Peter has had a falling out, and there is also the fatal disease allowing no more than a year for Beverly. Peter does have, in his fight against Pearly a companion, a white Pegasus of a horse able to whisk him and his beloved out of the reach of Pearly and his army of goons (for some reason I don’t recall being explained Pearly is restricted by Satan to Manhattan—but then there are lots of things in this fantasy that are not explained!). However, not even a Pegasus can save Beverly from the grim Reaper.
Peter finds himself in the year 2014, where he finds that his old secret lodging place high up in the attic of Grand Central Terminal is still there. Hidden in one of the walls is his old keepsake box containing the nameplate of the model ship that had brought him back to America. We are to believe that none of the workers who have refurbished the building during the past almost 100 years ever discovered this! (There are so many unbelievable parts to this movie that it is no wonder most critics have panned it.) Setting out to discover the fate of Beverly so long ago, he finds some unusual helpers and winds up at the newspaper that Beverly’s family had owned, and…
From what I have read, there is too much in the 700+ page novel to stuff into a 2-hour film. Thus we are served up a muddled plot that saps our usual willingness to suspend belief when dealing with a fantasy. Some of the best parts of the film are the glowing cinemaphotography, the skillful use of parts of Manhattan (notably Grand Central Terminal) and Queens to evoke old New York, and the excellent cast that includes not only the three leads–Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe– but also William Hurt as Isaac Pen, Beverly’s newspaper-owning father and Eva Marie Saint as the 21st century editor of that newspaper. Hurt has the best lines in the film when he tells Peter to sum up his intentions regarding his daughter, “Be brief. If you were one of my reporters, you’d be done by now. God created the world in six days. Ape him.”
People of faith will appreciate the question the voiceover raises near the end of the film, “What if we are all part of a great pattern that we may one day understand?” This, after all, evokes the theology expressed by the apostle Paul in his epistles. It may be true also that “Magic is everywhere around us,” but we will have to look elsewhere to find it. This is another unfortunate case in which the filmmakers’ ambition exceeds their grasp. Still, if you are an incurable romantic, you will find much to please you if you leave behind your critical faculties.