Mark Reviews Movies

War Horse


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Leonhard Carow, David Kross, Robert Emms, Matt Milne, Eddie Marsan  

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of war violence)

Running Time: 2:26

Release Date: 12/25/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2011

War Horse unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve. It is not a film of much subtlety, but neither does it need to be nor should it be. This is a big film—from its opening shots of the English highlands and a boy's wide-eyed, wondering gaze at the birth of a foal to its closing scene set against a fully tinted sunset—about big themes such as heroism, innocence, and humankind's capacity to continually find new and more brutal ways to make the former messier while destroying the latter.

This is a bleak film, despite the first act, which establishes the bond between a boy (who, wisely, remains off-screen until the final act) and his horse and the strife of a family in desperate financial straits that overcomes them through simple gumption, and the warm orange glow of the final scene. Even then, the completion of the family's hard-won accomplishment is fleeting as war erupts in Europe, shattering the ties that resulted in triumph, and, though one could read that coloring as an idyllic, comforting embrace, another could interpret its ruddiness as juxtaposition to the sweetness occurring in its bathing light—the bitter bloodiness of a world war, of late completed yet still unresolved and unforgotten. Considering misery that results from everything that comes before it, the second possible interpretation deserves at least some consideration.

Director Steven Spielberg once again achieves an intimate portrayal of individuals within a grand vision. War Horse simultaneously possesses a staggering technical prowess and a resolute comprehension of what might at first appear to be undemanding sentiment but—as straightforward as it is—is actually an intricately woven tapestry of the oftentimes dichotomous emotions and ideas on display.

The screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (based on both Michael Morpurgo's novel and Nick Stafford's adaptation of the book for the stage) is episodic, using the horse of the title as both the mechanical agent through which the story is told and, due to the opening act, a beacon of the better natures that have been put on hold. The story opens with Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) peeking through a fence to witness the birth and first steps of a colt; he awe-struck by the sight. The horse grows in montage, until, one day, it is brought to auction, rebelling at being separated from its mother but finally relenting.

At the auction are Albert and his father Ted (Peter Mullan), the town's resident drunk and joke, looking for a horse to plow their turnip field. Despite the presence of an obvious, burly specimen for the task at hand, that lean horse catches the eye of everyone, especially Albert, who has watched it since its birth. The landlord of the Narracott family farm (David Thewlis) is also drawn to the horse, and Ted, half out of drunkenness and half out of pride, decides to outbid the proprietor of his property, losing entirety of their rent money in the process. His wife Rose (Emily Watson) is furious, but Albert convinces them both that he can train the raucous stallion to plow the rocky field in time for the growing season. He names the horse Joey.

The early scenes with the family mostly fade from memory almost immediately once early August of 1914 arrives and the United Kingdom declares war on Germany.  They are mostly tender moments of Albert developing a connection with Joey—teaching him to approach at the sound of his whistle and to keep up with a speeding car (Jumping is not in the cards for Joey, which sets up the expectation that he will, indeed, need to make a heroic leap at one point). Soon these trivial concerns and comic bits disappear. Rumors of war are murmured throughout the village, and the time for the rent to be paid approaches sooner. Boy and horse are tried for the first time when they must steer a plow through a patch of earth that seems unbreakable. Like the rest of the struggles that follow, it is a clear, seemingly impossible goal, and for a moment, there is the sense of hope as the terrain begins to give. It works out for the Narracotts until it doesn't; this is the pattern of the story, spread across a series of characters that Joey encounters.

War breaks out, and Ted, still needing money, sells Joey to an idealistic officer in the cavalry (Tom Hiddleston). The officer promises Albert that he will care for Joey and send regular updates. He follows through on his promise, though not in a way for which either he or Albert would hope. After the head of the cavalry (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives a rousing speech for bravery, they attack a group of German soldiers in camp and at their morning routine (Joey's new owner objects; there is nothing honorable in this). The reason for the abandonment of such a cavalry charge in battle becomes painfully apparent as bodies and their mounts fall to a hail of machine gun fire.

Joey finds himself in the possession of others in taxing situations. There are two young brothers in the German army; the elder (David Kross) has promised his mother to watch over the younger (Leonard Carow)—an oath inconsistent with their duty as soldiers. A young, French girl (Celine Buckens), who has lost both her parents, and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), who worries incessantly about her, watch over Joey as the Germans come looking for anything of worth for the war effort.

A compassionate horse wrangler (Nicolas Bro) in Wilhelm's military can barely cope with putting the animals in his care through the deadly job of hauling massive artillery. After a magnificently orchestrated tracking shot through the mortar-pummeled trenches and the corpse-laden no man's land (Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, after capturing the loveliness of the first act, is particularly effective in these gritty scenes), two enemies (Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schönemann) find common ground until they need to return to attempt to kill each other in a particularly well-written scene.

The film is at once streamlined in its storytelling and substantial in its examination of the effects of war. Scoff if you must at the notion that an equine can symbolize an angel of our better natures. It's clear Spielberg whole-heartedly believes it, and War Horse is all the better for that dedication to the ideal.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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