Sunday, 4 December 2011


Walt Disney/DreamWorks
Now Showing

With an acclaimed and popular stageplay as its source material (adapted here by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis), and a great director in Steven Spielberg at the helm (with regular collaborators - composer John Williams and cinematographer Januzs Kaminski - on hand), War Horse promised to be one of the films of the year.

That it's not, I'd suggest, has more to do with the talent involved rather than with audience expectations. For as much cinematic craft has been applied to the material - about the special bond between a boy and his horse, set against the backdrop of World War I - it is done in such a calculated manner so as to be more distancing than emotionally affecting.

The first segment of the episodic War Horse takes place on the Naracott's English farm, the kind of pastoral idyll that plays home to a goose which thinks it's a guard dog and has you half expecting Babe to trot into frame at any moment.

It's here that young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the horse (which he names Joey) his father, Ted (Peter Mullan, in drunken asshole mode), unwisely, and much to the chagrin of his wife, Rose (a stoic Emily Watson), bought at auction.

But Ted soon puts the pony to work plowing the top paddock, a task Joey doesn't take to at first - he wasn't built to pull a plough - but which he succeeds at because Joey, as we're told repeatedly throughout the film, is a 'miraculous' horse.

Then World War I breaks out and Albert's miserable father sells Joey to the British army (a much better outcome for the horse if you've seen Mullan's animal-unfriendly turn in Tyrannosaur). Joey becomes the property of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who promises Albert he'll take care of Joey - or as much as one can when charging into the breach of German machine gun fire.

This is where Spielberg, who until this point has allowed John Williams' overbearing score to do all the work, comes into his own. Spielberg knows his way around a battle scene and this one, which begins in a wheat field and sees the British soldiers launching a futile ambush on an unsuspecting German platoon, is mighty impressive (although sans bloodshed; we're going for PG here).

Joey survives the bullets (he's miraculous!) and comes under the care of German soldier, Gunther (The Reader's David Kross), whose main concern is preventing his battle-eager younger brother from marching to the frontline and certain death.

Enlisting the horse in his failed escape bid, sees Joey and another horse (an equine pal he made while with the Brits) left in the care of a plucky young French girl, Emilie (Celine Buckens), and her doting grandfather (A Prophet's Niels Arestrup).

This sweet respite from the war doesn't last long, and Joey and his friend are soon sent to the trenches with the German forces, where the one horse will survive (miraculous!) but only to find himself entangled in barb wire in the middle of no man's land.

Simultaneously, young Albert has enlisted in the British Army and made his way to the Front only to come face to face with his own mortality. Will Albert and Joey survive their battlefield ordeals? Will boy and horse be reunited? Will Messrs Spielberg and Williams kindly stop poking me in the back in an attempt to elicit an emotional response?

The thing I minded most about War Horse was Spielberg's lack of confidence in the emotional power of the material, and the audiences ability to feel without being prompted (or pummelled, as the case may be). As a successful stageplay (based on the children's book by Michael Morpurgo), War Horse hasn't failed to reduce audiences to tears, but here, Spielberg requires every emotional moment be underlined by Williams' insistent (though, admittedly at times, beautiful) score.

On the plus side, War Horse is one of the most beautifully shot films of this, or any year; Januzs Kaminski adopting a painterly colour palette which, according to other reviewers with more film knowledge than myself, recalls the classic Westerns of John Ford.

I'll take their word for that (Mr. Ford's film oeuvre another I'm shamefully ignorant of), but what I did notice was the deliberate nod to Gone With The Wind in the film's final moments, a choice by Kaminski and Spielberg that comes across as laughable more than anything else.

Still, I'm under no illusion that what Spielberg has created in War Horse - a family film with lofty ambitions - will find an appreciative audience (among critics and the general public), one which will prove far more emotional ie tear-inducing, for them than it was for me.

Whether that is a natural, organic response or one akin to having your nose hairs pulled, will be up to the individual (I came closer to tears watching the film's trailer). For mine, War Horse proved to be less a noble beast than a failed campaign.

1 comment:

  1. The key to the film success (of which there are many) is the energy and pure spectacle of what we are watching. Director Brad Bird (of Pixar fame) handles his first live-action feature with a clear understanding of how an action scene should look and never lets the audience rest for a moment as the action moves around the world from Russia to the more glamourous Dubai and India. This, the fourth instalment in the M:I franchise, is the closest to how James Bond used to be, with nuclear missiles and globetrotting and luxury cars and beautiful women; however, the writers still keep the ‘impossible’ in Mission: Impossible with the gadgets and customary break-in sequence.