02/12/2014 05:52 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Winter's Tale : The Lovers, the Dreamers and Mythical New York

It takes a brilliant wordsmith and fantasist to adapt Mark Helprin's epic novel Winter's Tale for the screen, and luckily Akiva Goldsman is both. But the Oscar-winning screenwriter (A Beautiful Mind) has added another element that transforms his feature directorial debut into a story for the ages: A steadfast belief in true love.

A passion project years in the making, Winter's Tale teaches us that everyone is destined to share a miracle with someone special -- that magic from the heart can accomplish the impossible.

Set in a mythical 1916 New York, Winter's Tale follows the unusual journey of a thief named Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) who falls in love with the wealthy and ethereal Beverly Penn (a radiant Jessica Brown Findlay) after a botched attempt to burglarize her house. The couple quickly realize their happiness will be brief -- she is dying from consumption, while he has a price on his head, courtesy of the demonic Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and his Short Tail gang. When Pearly, Peter's former mentor, determines to destroy his protege once and for all, fate intervenes to send Peter Lake across centuries. Transported to the present day, Peter finds himself still enmeshed in the deadly battle between good and evil; only time will tell if his efforts to protect Beverly can prevail.

Though fans of Helprin's 800-page chef d'ouevre will note some major departures from the book, Goldsman has done a masterful job of distilling the winding, somewhat ambiguous narrative into a resolute and rapturously beautiful film. From the grand, sweeping shots of New York's skyline (accompanied by Hans Zimmer's triumphantly affecting score) to the most intimate vignettes between Peter and Beverly where nothing else seems to matter but their divine connection, Goldsman has created a feast for the senses. His detailed dedication results in a world presented so exquisitely that one hopes to crack the screen open and crawl around in its deliciousness. Outstanding credit goes to production designer Naomi Shohan and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel for creating a three-dimensional universe that doesn't need the bells and whistles of commercial 3-D. This is what movies are supposed to be.

Goldsman says:

My affection for grown-up fairytales is real. I tried to tell the story out of my own hope that everything happens for a reason, that the loss you experience today you may one day understand was a gain somewhere else...I think love stories are what has led us on to continue in the face of adversity.

That idea of predestination regarding loss and love cuts deeply for Goldsman (one can see hints of his personal struggle borne out in Peter Lake's experience), but the cast gathered for Winter's Tale celebrates a different kind of affection just as powerful -- friendship. The film enabled Goldsman to reunite with such former collaborators as Crowe (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man) and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), while rounding out the ensemble with stars galore: William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, and Matt Bomer all appear in pivotal roles. Sharp-eyed viewers can also spot quite a few colleagues of Crowe and Goldsman's in blink-and-you'll-miss-it parts.

"It was a beautiful collision of actors and actors' souls," Goldsman notes.

"Everybody loves Akiva," producer Michael Tadross (Sherlock Holmes) comments. "They all came to work with Akiva. His script was one of the greatest I've ever read, and his vision for it was so clear, his enthusiasm so evident, and that made it such a pleasure for all of us."

Naturally a great deal of the movie's magic lies in the setting, New York City. Whether in 1916 or 2014, Goldsman gives us the City That Never Sleeps as we wish it were, full of guardian angels and all-revealing light. Still, because production took place in and around the city itself -- controversially not long after Hurricane Sandy -- every location retains complete realism (I found myself finger-counting places: "I've been there, I've been there, I was just there yesterday...").

Goldsman confirms, "The story blends a reality-based environment with the unexplained that exists behind the world we see. It's a straightforward emotional narrative, yet within that naturalistic world is a world where magic happens and people live for centuries."

Indeed, where in our world is there a more liminal space -- liminal meaning "transitional" or "crossing a threshold" -- than the Big Apple? This enchanted island, where we walk around cloaked in our own and others' history, has always been the primary destination for the Earth's dreamers. No wonder that Goldsman chose such a site for the ultimate war between angels and demons. (And of course, New York becomes my own city of miracles all the time, for where else could I have gotten the inside scoop on the production from the Short Tails themselves?)

Though Winter's Tale seems at the surface a black-and-white morality story, each character is nuanced enough to provide spellbinding shades of gray. Take Farrell's Peter Lake, who steals objects without any compunction but repeatedly risks his life to save the innocent. Or the angel Gabriel (Finn Wittrock), who has voluntarily fallen from grace to stay on an imperfect Earth. If you enjoy rooting for the villain, as I often do, you will find no better entertainment than Russell Crowe as Pearly Soames. The agent of chaos is bad to the bone, but even his rage-fueled obsession with Peter Lake is understandable from a certain point of view.

Goldsman compares the onscreen showdowns between Farrell and Crowe to a ballet:

A fight is like a dance for them, the way they learn the steps and execute them as if they've known them their whole lives. It was pretty awesome, what these two men could do with their fists.

The tide of moviemaking appears to be turning toward Goldsman's brand of magical realism; films like Winter's Tale give us a reason to hope that we can surmount any odds as long as our heart is in the task. We need adult fairytales; we need them presented in just this way, to remind us that the intangible wonders are absolutely plausible, because in the most fantastic of stories there is always some basic truth about human nature. So whether you are in New York or finding a path through another city of dreams, remember: Love may be "impossible to find" -- but once found it is worth traveling to hell and back.