Monday, January 23, 2012

War Horse Movie Review

Having plumbed the depths of WWII era stories, I suppose it was just a matter of time before Steven Spielberg worked his way to World War I. The source material for War Horse seems almost destined for Spielberg territory. Originally a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo its themes include childhood dreams and lost innocence as seen through the prism of violence and the torment of war.

Interestingly, the central viewpoint is through the eyes of a thoroughbred named Joey. There is a principal human character, a teenager named Albert Narracott and played with unending earnestness and wonderment by Jeremy Irvine. The early scenes are through Albert’s eyes as he sees the foal born and follows him growing up until he’s brought to auction, where his father (Peter Mullan), a veteran of the Boer War with a bum leg and a drinking problem, overbids on him as a plough horse just to spite his wealthy landlord (David Thewlis). Emily Watson is Albert’s stalwart and sensible mother. Their livelihood in jeopardy if they can’t make their rent, Albert sets his sights on breaking Joey and having him plough a new field. And goshdarnit, wouldn’t you guess that he breaks that horse, and that horse defies the odds and miraculously ploughs that field. But bad luck strikes again and Albert’s father sells Joey to the army, readying themselves for war with Germany.


This whole prologue to the war taking place in Devon, England, and eating up about 45 minutes of screen time is so dripping with rank sentimentality, the same kind that Spielberg so often relies on instead of trusting his skills as a gifted storyteller. It may not help that the task of adapting the novel fell to Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, whose previous work (Curtis is known for writing popular British rom-coms like Love Actually and Bridget Jones’s Diary) has not exactly prepared them for a historical war epic. Spielberg’s at his best when pushing straightforward adventure as in the Indiana Jones series and lofty futuristic visions as in Minority Report and A.I. It’s when he strays from what he does best and tries too hard for the big emotional payoff that he loses me. And it happens over and over again, undoing the goodwill he earns with some battle scenes that as impressive as anything he’s filmed during his impressive career.

The England scenes are shot in a way that reveals the artifice, given a rich golden hue by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose work is typically stylized by washed out backlighting shining through windows and doors that accentuates the interior design. Here, they seem to be deliberately calling to mind Gone With the Wind, which had a similarly artificial lighting design for its exteriors partially due to its being shot on a soundstage. Location shooting was obviously used in War Horse, but they’ve gone out of their way cover it up in some instances. Perhaps the idea was to give it a more Old Hollywood feel but the result for me was that it felt less cinematic. I like the use of open spaces in location shooting that reveals the vastness of the land giving a sense of perspective to how I view the characters.

Moving to the continent and war, the viewpoint shifts to Joey. He has a human owner in Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), whose promise to Albert that he will look after Joey until the war’s end is cut short by a poor strategic decision that sends a cavalry brigade charging directly into German machine gun fire, the first instance of old confronting new and one of the major factors in the inordinate number of combat deaths in WWI. Joey’s presence on the front belongs to another time before new technologies like artillery, tanks and machine guns were employed. In the ensuing battle as the cavalry charges into a German encampment, Spielberg doesn’t go full tilt like he did with Saving Private Ryan. Instead, in his obvious desire to receive a PG-13 rating, he shies away from graphic blood and deaths and hits upon a shot that is eerie and more evocative as we see only the rider-less horses charging on into the words, bounding over the gunners. The slaughter is of men is suggested rather than revealed, giving the scene a different kind of power than if we had seen the carnage with our own eyes. Later he will use a turning windmill to cover up another human tragedy, a technique that doesn’t evoke the same feelings because the sail’s position in the foreground calls attention to the camera.

As the story moves from place to place and owner to owner, the sensation I got was that the protagonist kept changing. Then I realized that we’re so accustomed to the human characters being the heroes that I wasn’t allowing for the possibility that it was Joey who is the real star. After the death of Captain Nicholls, Joey falls into the hands of the German army, specifically two young brothers (David Kross and Leonard Carow). Then a young Belgian girl comes across him. Her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) only wants to protect her and his property from the invading army and so the horses are soon back with the Germans, this time pulling artillery – a task that quickly kills most horses. Events lead to Joey eventually charging unmanned through the no man’s land between German and British trenches, getting caught up in barbed wire in a scene so harrowing it will have the more sensitive members of the audience clutching at their companions for comfort.

I found the structure of shifting viewpoints distracting. I have no problem with an omniscient point of view, but that’s not quite what’s happening here. Albert is established early on as the film’s principal human protagonist. His disappearance from the narrative for an hour forces us to follow Joey, who is essentially his surrogate. But the story is not, strictly speaking, told from the horse’s point of view so the other humans who come in and out of his life are also protagonists in their own little short stories. That we spend so little time with these supporting characters and that their departures are sometimes tragic is a fact of the nature of war. Land and homes are pillaged, soldiers are killed and work animals die of exhaustion. This is a truth that can not be avoided. Although Kaminski’s camera turns away from the goriest parts, Spielberg’s story is actually a depiction of the cruelties of war, a thematic element that is ultimately betrayed in favor of a cynically sentimental ending.

Apart from one heart-wrenching scene that honestly touched me for a moment involving Albert’s reunification with Joey after four years of war, about the only part of the film that I truly enjoyed was John Williams’ beautiful score. Williams doesn’t do much in the way of film scores these days (from 2006 through 2010 he only scored Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), but this year he had two. The Adventures of Tintin deliberately called to mind many of his previous scores, but his work on War Horse, though distinctly John Williams, is an original work unto itself, with melodies that bolster the emotions without tugging them out of us. There will come a day, sooner rather than later, when there will no longer be a new film score by this great man who has written some of the most memorable movie music of the last 40 years. That may not be reason enough to sit through War Horse, but it helps ease the experience.

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