Sunday, January 1, 2012

Movie Review: War Horse

War Horse *** ½
Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo.
Starring: Jeremy Irvine (Albert Narracott), Peter Mullan (Ted Narracott), Emily Watson (Rose Narracott), Niels Arestrup (Grandfather), David Thewlis (Lyons), Tom Hiddleston (Captain Nicholls), Benedict Cumberbatch (Maj. Jamie Stewart), Celine Buckens (Emilie), Toby Kebbell (Geordie Soldier), Patrick Kennedy (Lt. Charlier Waverly), Leonhard Carow (Michael), David Kross (Gunther), Matt Milne (Andrew Easton), Robert Emms (David Lyons), Eddie Marsan (Sgt. Fry), Nicolas Bro (Friedrich), Rainer Bock (Brandt), Hinnerk Schönemann (German Soldier in No Man's Land).

Throughout his career Steven Spielberg has walked the fine line between sentimentality and just plain sappy. Unlike some cynics, I have never minded sentiment, and I don`t mind crying at the movies – as long as I feel the film has earned it, and not just been overly manipulative. Spielberg, at his best, makes these kind of sentimental films better than anyone. I cry when I watch E.T. and I never feel guilty about it.  His new film, War Horse, also walks this very fine line – and while admittedly, I do think it crosses over from sentiment to sappy at several points – overall I couldn`t help but be moved by the film. The emotions evoked by the film are honest and earned.

The film opens in Ireland on the eve of World War I. Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) is a poor, stubborn farmer who needs to plow a field of his covered in rocks, so he heads down to the horse auction to find a work horse. Instead he sees a thoroughbred, and decides to bid on it instead – especially when his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) gets involved and drives up the price. But Ted will not let Lyons win. Now, they are stuck with a horse that probably will not be able to plow – much to the chagrin on Ted`s wife Rose (Emily Watson). But their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) falls in love with the horse – and knows that if he shows patience, he can train it to do anything – even plow. And of course, he`s right. But this is just the beginning of this incredible horse`s journey. Eventually, he will be sold to the British Army to be used as a Calvary horse when the war breaks out. Throughout the course of the war, the horse will have multiple owners – on both sides of the conflict, from a British officer (Tom Hiddlesome) to a German in charge of the ambulances (David Kross) to a sickly French girl and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and back to the Germans to pull their artillery.

The movies structure reminded me of Robert Bresson`s Au Hazard Balthazar, which also featured an animal as its main character – in that case, a mule named Balthazar, who goes from one owner to another. The difference between the two films is clear however – where Bresson`s film is about the hardships of Balthazar, where his life is a series of one torment after another, meeting one cruel person after another, Spielberg`s film takes the opposite track – no matter who is in charge of him at any given point – no matter what side of the war they are on – he meets one nice person after another. Yes, he is worked hard, yes, he goes through hardship after hardship, is used and abused and many of the people around him are cruel and harsh, but at their heart, his “owners” are nice to him – recognize in him they best of the world, not the worst. This makes War Horse a much more sentimental film than Au Hazard Balthazar, but that`s not necessarily a bad thing. This sentimentality leads to the films least plausible, but most emotionally affecting, scene, when the horse is caught in no man`s land, bleeding for multiple injuries caused by barbed wire. The two sides stop fighting, and one Brit and one German meet together to help the horse. No, I didn`t really believe this scene, but it`s effective just the same.

The filmmaking on display by Spielberg in War Horse, at least at its best moments, rivals the best of what he has put on screen before. The ill-fated charge by the British Calvary is masterfully staged by Spielberg, exciting and enthralling, bringing to mind Lawrence of Arabia. Even better is the scene where the horse literally runs for his life through no man`s land, which is one of the most exciting scenes of the year, and also one of the emotionally draining. If you don`t well up a little bit when this horse fights for his life, you`re missing something inside.
The film`s closing scenes – evoking the visuals of John Ford – lay it on a little too thick even for me (as does the segment involving the sickly French girl). But the Ford reference is a good one, as Ford never shied away from bald sentimentality if he thought it was necessary, and neither does Spielberg. War Horse is his most boldly, baldly sentimental film in years. And I, for one, appreciated that. Maybe the film is too sentimental, and even sappy, for our cynical times, and yet I appreciated the film as a throwback – not just to Bresson and Ford, but to a time when films like War Horse weren`t sneered at for being sentimental, but celebrated for it. No, the film doesn`t quite live up to the best on Spielberg`s resume, or the best old school films that it pays homage to, but it comes pretty damn close.

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