Wednesday, 18 April 2012
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson,
By Alan Bacchus
There's a great deal going on in War Horse, but enjoyment of the film essentially comes down to how much you can stomach the Spielberg brand of syrupy schmaltz, where metaphors are loud and clear, no emotions are left unexpressed and almost nothing is between the lines.
If this was a year in which modern films paid homage to the past (i.e., The Artist and Hugo), War Horse would also fit in with this company, harkening back to not only the "mature" Steven Spielberg of the late '80s (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Always), but the dreamy cinema of John Ford. Ford has creeped into almost all of Spielberg's films in some form of another, but at times, War Horse is, shamelessly, The Quiet Man revisited.
Certainly the opening act does, which feels like a film within a film - the story of the birth of the warhorse Joey and how he came into the company of the Narracott family, specifically smitten young son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), with whom he develops a unique bond. This all takes place in the rolling green hills of Devonshire, beneath impossibly beautiful cloudscapes, shot with the same kind of compositional perfection that made Ford famous. The overly tender sweetness of Albert's unspoken love for the horse, which seems to hypnotize both he and his father (Peter Mullan), is devoid of any kind of reality. For good and bad, it's the stuff of old world Hollywood dream factory filmmaking.
Spielberg settles down for much more accessible second and third acts, where the horse is brought into the cavalry to fight in WWI. This is where Spielberg never misses a beat – choreographing and directing phenomenal action scenes with breathtaking scope and intensity, a talent still unrivalled by even the hottest young directors. The story cleverly follows Joey's Odyssey-like journey from owner to owner, each of whom exhibits their unconditional attachment to the horse. Twists occur that allow us to see both sides of the battle and show the confounding tragic irony of the war as a conflict of cockeyed gentlemen fought by innocent and naive kids with nothing at stake except their lives.
Despite the mushiness, Spielberg does engineer a satisfying and cathartic reunification at the end, a moment drawn out to excess, but a scene in keeping with the storybook tone of the rest of the film, and thus earned dutifully by Spielberg.
This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca