War Horse

Rating – ***

Look, I love me some sugar-coated movie schmaltz, of a certain kind. ET, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Forest Gump, Titanic… The Snowman. I’ll freely admit to weeping like a little girl when watching them, and gladly so. I don’t resent my emotional heartstrings being plucked when it feels justified and “earned”. So, we’ve established I’m a sappy little bitch (as a close friend of mine will surely summarise it). I’m also a full-on Spielberg nut, unashamedly worshiping at the genius bearded-one’s alter. When early reviews declared War Horse as “sweeping, epic, a masterpiece” and something along the lines of “a seven tissue weepy”, I was fully prepared to get in line, Kleenex in pocket, and simply let the cinematic treacle wash over me. Hell, I even grew up in the Hampshire countryside where my mum kept several horses over the years. One of which suffered a serious injury after ripping her leg open on a barbed wire fence. From a box-ticking Hollywood executive’s perspective, I’m smack bang within their target demographic.

The film opens with picturesque vistas of the Devon countryside and a rickety little farmhouse, apparently lifted from the set of Babe. There’s even an angry bumbling goose for comic relief. Joey the horse is born, he scampers across the rolling fields, Young Albert looks on in captivated awe. This goes on for about ten minutes, fair enough, it’s setting the scene, we’ll get down to some meaty substance shortly right? Well no, then the characters begin to speak in their thick Devonshire accents (I’m tempted to call it Devonian, as it sounds so primitive). Every line seems to be a variation of “What a remarkable ‘orse that be, says I” or “I don’t know much, but that there be a remarkable creature if ever I saws one….says I……oh-ar……says I”. In fact, the film’s Achilles’ heel throughout it’s entire running time, is the dialogue, both in terms of scripting and delivery. Richard Curtis has brought his putrid and simplistic Love Actually brand to the table (aka, the type of manipulative crap that doesn’t make me cry… well not in the way intended). As Joey the horse is sold into military service he changes owners many times, leading to a fractured episodic structure with frequent patches of minimal interest. Many of the key characters are French and German, but there’s not a subtitle in sight. Instead we are subjected to the worst kind of sub-Allo’! Allo’! silly accents. It really undermines the drama and becomes unintentionally funny. There isn’t even consistency. When marching, the German soldiers count in their mother tongue. One pivotal scene between an English and German soldier is ruined by the line “You speak good English”….yeah no shit, they’ve been rambling away in the King’s the whole time mate! That’s the biggest crime of War Horse, it’s script forces many wonderful actors to perform through a pantomime filter.

Neither was I entirely satisfied by the production design or Kaminski’s cinematography. While the battle scenes look fantastic, any time a farmhouse appears we find ourselves in Telly Tubby land. Perfectly flat green grass, rays of sunlight pouring in through windows… from every angle. Usually Spielberg films pull this off fantastically, he pretty much owns the copyright. But many of the scenes look inexplicably amateur, like somebody trying to imitate this style. So frequently I could feel the presence of the reflector board, positioned mere inches off screen. Worst of all, I swear in one daylight exterior shot, Albert has two shadows as he runs across a field! I’d have to watch again to verify that, but look out for it during an early scene when he is training Joey using an apple to make him follow.

War Horse does have some considerable strengths, as any Spielberg film does. Even his “bad” films feature moments which only a master could orchestrate. In this case it’s a real thrill to see dozens of real horses charging across a real location with real riders…. really. The equine star does a fantastic job, never with that stilted feeling of a trained animal doing things on cue, hitting his mark in return for a Polo mint. No, this horse runs, falls, jumps, nuzzles, whimpers and emotes for real. I suppose what I’m saying is, the scenes combining War and a Horse are magnificent, it’s all in the title really. In a pivotal scene where Joey bolts away from his German captors and charges across no-man’s land, I felt the shiver down my spine I’d been waiting for. John Williams music cranks it up a notch and Framestore deliver some excellent subtle CG enhancements (I only noticed that because I have friends who worked on these shots. However the results are seamless!). This scene leads to an encounter with barbed wire, and that’s where I finally teared up. Possibly due to my aforementioned affinity for this unfortunate scenario.

Its feels odd to be one of the cynical neigh-sayers…….ha get it, neigh….it’s a horse movie, horses say n- …..oh forget it. Yet after seeing the film for the first time last night, this is my honest reaction. Many mainstream critics are proclaiming this as one of Spielberg’s finest, I wish I could agree. Within The Berg’s pantheon of work I’d rank it towards the low end, alongside The Terminal or Always. Films that leave you to question their ultimate “point”, where you wonder what got Spielberg so fired up to make them in the first place. It’s a far cry from Saving Private Ryan or Empire of the Sun. But hey, that horse sure earns his nose-bag, “a remarkable kind of an ‘orse I’d say”.

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~ by thewholebuffalo on January 14, 2012.

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