James Mottram meets Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay
Never has the phrase 'timeless love story' been more apt than when describing A New York Winter's Tale. This most heartfelt Hollywood offering is for the St Valentine's season.
"I don't think I've done anything that's as unashamedly and unabashedly romantic as this film," admits Colin Farrell, when we meet on a chilly afternoon in London.
Certainly not since 2006's Ask The Dust, has the Irish star attempted to woo on screen, preferring a career path that's seen him explore alpha-males in movies like Miami Vice and Pride and Glory.
Yet while Ask The Dust, er, bit the dust, A New York Winter's Tale has a chance to blossom like a dozen red roses as Farrell shows his softer side – albeit seasoned with that roguish quality that fans know so well from films like Intermission and In Bruges. Here, in 1916, he plays Peter Lake, a one-time orphan whose parents sent him, Moses-like, towards Ellis Island in a model boat when they were turned away from the infamous immigration spot. Street-smart adult Peter makes his living robbing Manhattan's well-to-do folk.
"Peter is somebody who never grew up knowing anything about love," says Farrell (37) sporting a big white shirt, black biker boots and ripped jeans. "It's funny, because he was gifted the greatest and most severe gesture of love by his parents, so that he could survive – but he's not aware of that, he doesn't feel that, he doesn't carry it with him. They sent him towards the shore, hoping he would land there and they would take him in – so he's somebody that's never been exposed to tenderness, to love or to selflessness. And he's had to live a very selfish existence of petty crime."
Based on the 1983 novel by Mark Helprin, the twist comes when Peter meets the woman of his dreams midway through burgling her family home. Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a young woman dying of consumption, who must sleep in an elaborate roof-top tent to keep her body temperature cool. Findlay, in what is her first major Hollywood movie after rising to fame as Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, admits she was immediately drawn to Beverly.
Today wearing a navy trouser suit and silver heels, the 24-year-old actress calls her a "really beautiful character" to play.
"She's let go of fear, because if she doesn't, she won't live in the time that she has left. She doesn't really fit in to any real class ... she just sticks out like a sore thumb, but she's tucked away in this house and really doesn't think she'll ever have a kind of life that everyone else will have. And that's okay for her, until this moment happens for her."
That 'moment' sees her fall for Peter, only to succumb to her illness and die in his arms – a tragedy that starts in motion a fantastical story about the universality of love.
Arguably, it's a bold move for a Hollywood romance, jettisoning your leading lady halfway through the plot, but then A New York Winter's Tale is hardly conventional for a studio movie that marks the directorial debut of Akiva Goldsman, the celebrated screenwriter who won an Oscar for penning A Beautiful Mind.
The way Brown Findlay sees it, Goldman's own struggles to get the novel made – he's been involved with it for years – are reflected in the themes surrounding Peter and Beverly. "The integral part of the story is love and passion; that it keeps you going no matter what – and this story carries a lot of that," she says. "It was quite in keeping with what we were doing; it was going to be told, no matter how hard we had to fight to tell the story."
While the setting might be a turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York – reminiscent of the one seen in Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon A Time In America – the backdrop is one of magical realism. "It's a world that you recognise with magical elements that raise it into a slightly more mystical place," says Jessica. "And that's cool – it allows for imagination to thrive and not feel so constrained by rules and regulations. That's exciting."
Now whether you buy into the story depends on how you feel about the more spiritual elements – not least a white winged horse that pitches up like an equine guardian angel to help Peter in his hour of need, as he comes face-to-face with otherworldly forces. With scenes set in modern-day too – with the seemingly ageless Peter still searching for his eternal love – there's a Cloud Atlas-like feel to the story, with its theme of pre-destination.
One of the film's more intriguing aspects is quite how Goldsman convinced Russell Crowe and Will Smith to take on supporting roles as the demonic forces that battle against Peter Lake. While Smith's role (as Lucifer himself) is a two-scene cameo, Crowe is more prominent, playing scar-faced Irish gangster Pearly Soames, who is tasked by Smith's character with bringing Peter and Beverly down.
Farrell admits he was impressed with Crowe, who had a couple of Irish musician friends on set to help him hone his accent. "He'll get the piss ripped out of him, I've no doubt, because it's an incredibly hard accent to do. What he did was great. He put a bit of rough in it, and it was really in keeping with the character. It's like Brad Pitt in Snatch, who was playing one of the lads. It wasn't perfect what he did, but it was so committed."
Indeed, it would be hard to make a film like A New York Winter's Tale, with its fantastical elements, unless there was absolute commitment from the actors. According to both stars, it's difficult to make romantic films in our cynical modern times.
"It's something where people go 'Ah, no, that doesn't happen.' Well, sometimes it does and that's beautiful," says Brown Findlay.
Farrell concurs, noting that there's a "culture of cruelty" that exists in the world today – partly fuelled by the internet – that makes shooting a romance all the more difficult.
"For some people, there's a fear of softness," he says. "I was very afraid [of softness]. What is softness? You throw out words like that... if something's really sweet, people go 'urgh!' And I get that." He pulls a face. "There is no doubt this film is sweet and knows it's sentimental, but I don't think sentimentality is a bad thing."
He doesn't even get teary-eyed when I ask if he misses Dublin, partly because he has lived in Los Angeles for so long now, and his mother and two sisters are there to give him a hand with his two young sons, James and Henry. "Dublin will always be where I'm from and will always be a very important part of who I am ... but I don't miss it every day, because I'm too busy living my life. But I get so excited when I get to go home – I love it so deeply."
As for Brown Findlay, she's still based in London – and still bamboozled by the fame her time on Downton Abbey has brought her.
"I don't like to think about it too much!" she cries. "I'm just grateful to be working, with passionate people who want to tell brilliant, beautiful stories – and Winter's Tale was such a wonderful opportunity to do that. So, yeah, I'm taking it all with a pinch of salt and pretending it's not happening!"
Just as the film shows, fairy tales can come true.
A New York Winter's Tale opens today
5 Great New York Movies
There's arguably no director more umbilically linked to New York than Woody Allen, and no film from his body of work more in love with the city where he was born and raised than this Gershwin-soaked black-and-white poem.
Taxi Driver (1977).
Martin Scorsese rivals Allen as the cinematic King of New York, never more so than with this snarling evocation of the Big Apple glimpsed through the windshield of Robert De Niro's vengeful cabbie. Hell's Kitchen has never looked so hellish.
King Kong (1933).
Clutching Fay Wray as biplanes buzz around him, is there any more iconic New York sight than that giant simian King Kong at the top of the Empire State Building? A film often aped (sorry) but never bettered.
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
If New York is the ultimate urban jungle, then it's never more apparent than in British director Alexander Mackendrick's bile-soaked showbiz drama, driven by Burt Lancaster's gossip columnist and Tony Curtis's press agent.
Do The Right Thing (1989).
From the moment Rosie Perez dances to Public Enemy in the opening credits, Spike Lee's landmark drama about raucous race relations in a hot and sweaty Brooklyn burns with 100 degree intensity. Handle with asbestos gloves.
Day & Night