Tuesday, 3 January 2012
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Niels Arestrup
By Alan Bacchus
This film certainly lived up to the expectations as an often stunning action/war film with some phenomenal production values recreating WWI warfare and lively horse action. But it also features heavy doses of syrupy Spielberg sentimentality that, in his later years, he keeps grabbing for and just never seems to reach. As with most of his post-1982 work, War Horse is admirable in some moments but not a complete winner.
John Ford's influence on this film is even more front and centre than in Spielberg’s other works. The opening act featuring the birth of the animal and his rearing as a plow horse on a quaint English farm feels like Ford nostalgia from The Quiet Man or How Green Was My Valley. Even the unique cinematography tries to capture the saturated look of early Technicolor. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. The inconsistent lighting and background cloud cover seems to have been over-corrected, and on a few shots I even noticed the actors standing in front of green screen-generated cloudscapes. These opening scenes on the homestead set up the bond between man and horse, specifically Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a teenager who's smitten with the young stead, and the titular horse, named Joey by his master. The plotting of Albert's father (Mullan), who is penniless and desperately needs Joey to plow the field, is the schmaltzy, syrupy stuff mentioned before. Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, normally endearing personalities on screen, are rendered dull in the case of Mullan and overly deified in the case of Ms. Watson.
The film hits its gears in the second act when Joey is brought into WWI to fight in the British cavalry in a series of spectacular action scenes. Twists occur over the course of the journey, which allow us to see both sides of the battle and show the confounding tragic irony of the war as a conflict of wonky gentlemen fought by innocent and naive kids with nothing at stake except their lives.
The worst moments in the film are with the normally wonderful Niels Arestrup. Playing a Frenchman who speaks English, he comes into possession of the horse with his granddaughter. These scenes stop the film dead, but luckily the horse eventually moves on to new owners for the film’s rousing finale.
It's not news that Spielberg has lost his edge, and here, like in most of his films, the quieter moments are marked by a tin ear for dialogue. This is unlike some of his films, such as Close Encounters, ET, Jaws and The Sugarland Express, in which the actors spoke in natural rhythms no matter how outrageous the situation, and the humour contained a whimsical joie-de-vivre. Here, every gag is hit home with a sledgehammer of subtlety and stung by John Williams' forgettable music contributions. I know there's some loyalty here, but the aged John Williams and his turn-key orchestral arrangements have been so lacklustre over the past 15 years, I firmly believe he's pulling Steven down.
Despite rolling my eyes at the gushing sentimentality, Spielberg does engineer a satisfying and cathartic reunification at the end. It’s a moment drawn out to excess, but the scene is in keeping with the storybook tone of the rest of the film – a scene Spielberg earns dutifully. War Horse is no masterpiece, but at times it’s rousing, cinematic entertainment.