War Horse (Multiple Reviews)

7

FOOTE (****)

On stage the horses are created with puppets, which I understand is rather effective. The same sort of thing was accomplished with Equus in the seventies, when actors wore crowns that looked like the head of a horse and stood on hooves to create the illusion of a horse. It was a stunning effect, that when they made the film of Equus (1977) they left the illusion behind and went with real horses, which makes perfectly good sense. But the play was a deeply religious work, metaphorical, the imagery of man merged with horse essential to its message, so while Richard Burton and Peter Firth gave excellent, Oscar nominated performances in the film, the picture never quite captured the power of the stage play.

Spielberg’s film does, and more.

Though I do not place War Horse on a level with Schindler’s List (1998), it cannot be denied that the picture is one of the directors’ best and certainly one of the finest of the year. Spielberg seems to continue to grow as a filmmaker, leaving the debacle that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) a distant memory with this stunning new film that is among the most beautifully shot films of the year. Of course we do not go to the movies to look at the scenery, there must be a story with it and safe to say the one that goes along with War Horse is a deeply moving saga set against the backdrop of World War One. How many great films are there about that First World War?

Very few, sadly.

Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1917), the Oscar winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Grand Illusion (1938), Paths of Glory (1957), A Very Long Enagagement (2004), the Canadian epic Passchendaele (2009) and the little seeen Canadian picture The Wars (1983)? The greatest film about the First World War is unquestionably Lawrence of Arabia (1962) though that film is more of a biographical study of a troubled warrior than a study of that war. The silent film Wings (1927) did a pretty fair job exploring the manner of aerial combat as did Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930), but there are no where near the films about the First World War that there are the Second. From what the history books and rare footage explares for us, it was a filthy war, fought in the mud and trenches across Europe with horses, guns, cannons and deadly mustard gas.

Steven Spielberg’s film is less a war epic than a love story between a boy and his horse, a throwback to the sort of film Hollywood does make anymore, but that Spielberg has mounted with stunning beauty. One part war film, one part Smokey (1966), the film is an often deeply moving study of the depth of emotion a boyu can have for an animal. As expected the sequences of the war are breathtaking in their visceral horror, we simply have not seen the war like this before, but Spielberg does not dwell on these scenes, knowing his story is about something else. He allows the story to maintain its simplicity, forging a tearkjerker that earns its tears with honesty, and our own innate love for animals.

The directors deep admiration for the great American master John Ford is seen within the film, and though the film is not a western, like Ford, Spielberg captures the stunning majesty of the horse. Spielberg has made an old fashioned film that would have found a sizable audience in the forties and fifties, adoring audiences who would have made the picture a huge success. There is an innocence about the work, but it works for the film, because there is an innocence to the lead character. The staggering vistas of the war sequences owe a debt to the great David Lean who gave us Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Zhivago (1965) both magnificent, and magnificent looking films. As Martin Scorsese has givne us a film history experience, so does Spielberg in his own unique manner.

The story is, as I stated, old fashioned and realtively simplistic. A love story, boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy finds horse. The horse of the title is bought by the military for duty in the war, and Albert, the boy forced to sell his beloved steed, and not terribly happy to do so, haunted by his decision, forever worried about his horse.. Knowing that his beloved horse will not likely return, ending up dead in the fields, or slaughtered for food, he makes a bold decision. Vowing to get his animal back, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) waits out his chance and makes his move to reunite with his precious horse. With German soldiers advancing all around him, the war is an ever present character within the film, its destruction apparent in every horrific yet stunning frame. Spielberg has walked this road before, creating beauty out of hell itself, in his studies of the horrors of war in Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Privtae Ryan (1998). This time his touch is much more subtle, because war is not the centerpiece of the film, the relationship is.

The performances in the film work wonderfully because each serves the story and never goes much beyond that. Irvine is terrific as Albert, capturing the childhood innocence that will be lost by the nightmares he witnesses. Emily Watson does not have a lot of screen time to make an impression, but she manages to carve out an impressive turn as the the boy’s mother, fighting her own war aginst poverty. Best of all is Niels Arestrup as the kindly old Frenchman who cares for the horse and brings more than a bit of wisdom into the film. This wonderful actor ground the film in reality and brings a tired dignity to his character.

The horse is a beautiful animal, and when they begin to gallop they are poetry in motion. Pure muscle moving together for speed, with a man atop them, vulnerable, at the mercy of the animal’s trust.There are few things more thrilling than being atop a galloping horse at full speed, the wind ripping past you, the pounding of the hooves in your year and rattling yoiur spine, but at that moment you become one with the horse, as though you had become an appendage. we understand how Albert feels because the only time he feels whole is atop his horse, with his horse, and the relationship is the sort that one would walk through to get to his friend.

And so he does.

War Horse is magnificent and one of the years best films. No doubt the film will rack up ten or more Oscar nominations, and perhaps win a few. Mad with care and affection, for both the material and the films of years gone by, Spielberg has crafted a film of stunning beauty and simplicity in which story means all. But beczause he is a visual director and storyteller, his images sing.

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MAGIDSON (***)

‘War Horse’ is pretty much exactly the film you think that it is.  Whether that’s a plus or a minus really depends on who you are.  For me, it’s a mixed bag of sorts.  Some of it is director Steven Spielberg at his best, but some of it is too heavy-handed to not make your eyes roll a bit.  It’s an old fashioned story, no doubt about that, but it doesn’t excuse the occasional lapses that the film suffers from.  I’m still recommending it as the star rating indicates, as the good outweighs the bad, but parts of the film are definitely on the disappointing side.  Perhaps it’s a case of high expectations, but this is just another early Oscar player that can’t stand up to the scrutiny that a year of anticipation brings.  Spielberg is still Spielberg, so it’s a beautiful and well made film, just one with a few imperfections that keeps me from fully embracing it.  I liked this flick, I just didn’t quite love it like I know many will (including our own John Foote…my thoughts are closer to Clayton’s).  There’s plenty more good than bad, but those hoping for one of Spielberg’s best will be disappointed.  All of his filmmaking grandeur and sincerity are there, it’s just an imperfect mix this time around.  Like I just said, there’s lots to like, so don’t get me wrong that this is somehow a bad movie.  It’s gorgeous to look at, the ensemble cast is strong (especially Jeremy Irvine in the lead), and you’ll likely get a lump in your throat on more than one occasion.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what bugs me about the film, but guess I just feel like The Beard can do better than this…

The story (based on the award winning play and children’s novel of the same name) follows the friendship between Albert Narracott (Irvine) and his horse Joey during the coming and duration of World War I.  Purchased on a whim by Albert’s disabled farmer father Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), Joey is not expected by Rose Narracott (Emily Watson) or anyone else for that matter, to be able to do the work necessary to keep the farm going.  Albert takes Joey on as his horse and friend, training him to be able to save his father from defaulting on his mortgage to their landlord…but against all odds the stallion does it.  Sadly, the war has begun and Ted needs money, so he sells Joey to the British Army.  Albert is promised by Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) that he’ll take good care of the horse.  Over the course of the war, Joey is captured by the German Army, escapes, bonds with a young girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), is recaptured by the Germans, and finally alone in no man’s land.  At the same time, Albert has enlisted, hoping against hope that he’ll one day see his horse again.  No points for guessing how the story ends, but for the most part the film earns its ending.

I have no qualms about the acting in this movie, especially by newcomer Jeremy Irvine.  The heart and soul of the picture is Irvine and the horse, and you believe in their connection.  This young man has got quite a future ahead of him, so keep an eye out…he’s one to watch.  The cast is an ensemble one, so no one really gets too much in the way of screen time, but they all make it count.  Irvine is the best in the film, but Niels Arestrup is a close second.  Arestrup has perhaps the saddest story, and he really drives it home in his few scenes.  Peter Mullan and Emily Watson are solid but underused.  The same goes for Tom Hiddleston.  Turning in notable work as well are actors like Benedict Cumberbatch (better though in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’), David Thewlis, David Kross, and Eddie Marsan, among others.  The horse is no slouch either.  This is an active role for it, and you never feel like it’s being coaxed on.  After Irvine and Arestrup, the horse gets top honors.

The film is immediately recognizable as “a Steven Spielberg film”, but that was never in question.  From the beautiful cinematography by Janusz Kaminski to the rousing score by John Williams, it’s impeccable to look at and listen to.  Spielberg’s direction is on the light and tender side, though during the later battle scenes he employs some tactics from his ‘Saving Private Ryan’ bag of tricks.  The thing is, he never really puts it all together until then.  Individual scenes work, but the story never fully clicks.  The issues lie with the languid pace and odd editing that the flick has, along with the script by filmmaker Richard Curtis and Lee Hall (based on the aforementioned book by Michael Morpurgo).  They hit all of the high notes, but the lower ones leave you hanging.  Still, they do more right than they do wrong.  I’d have trimmed much of the middle section of the flick, as it weighs down the stronger first and third acts.  Whenever Joey is with the Germans, things slowed down a bit to me.  Overall though, none of the individual complaints are huge…they just add up to more than a minor quibble.

In terms of Oscar attention, it does seem to be right in the Academy’s wheelhouse.  It’s in play for every single tech category except Original Song, and I’d expect the majority of those categories to wind up holding slots for it.  As for the bigger ones, Best Picture is more likely than not, and the same goes for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay.  Any acting nods are long shots, but you never know here.  I think if they just like the film, 2 of the 3 big ones are in the cards.  If they love it though, all bets are off…

In the end I don’t exactly have any huge complaints with ‘War Horse’ other than the nagging feeling that a better movie could have been made.  Most things about it are simply good…nothing springs out at you as the best of the year.  Steven Spielberg is capable of capturing your imagination in a way that few can, and here he settles for just trying to make you cry.  On that level, I’d rather stick with a just as manipulative and sappy but more entertaining film in ‘We Bought a Zoo’ (my more enthusiastic Early Review can be found here), but that’s just me.  You can do far worse than ‘War Horse’, but with the talent involved, we should have gotten at least a bit better.

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