Saturday, December 24, 2011
Movie review: War Horse
Magical horse-based entertainment — but think twice about taking your colt to see it.
A boy and his horse: The stuff that movie magic is made of?
That's what director Steven Spielberg and the producers behind War Horse are betting on by trotting out this ambitious, tear-jerking, 2 1/2 hour adventure epic over the Christmas holiday weekend.
And -- given the, um, track record of horse-themed flicks over the years, there may be some justification for such a high-stakes wager. I think I can safely say that horse lovers, at least, will leave the theater happy.
Although, there may be some intense discomfort in store for them while they're in the midst of actually watching the movie. Because bad stuff happens to horses in this film, stuff that will make you want to avert your eyes. (It's a tried-and-true means of building pathos for the central equine character, don't you know.) The PG-13 rating (for "intense sequences of war violence") might very well apply to colts, as well as children — just in case you were thinking of bringing your horses to the theater.
From the moment young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) lays eyes on the rambunctious chestnut colt prancing around his neighbor's field, he senses a strong spiritual connection. When the horse later comes up for auction, Albert's inebriated father Ted (Peter Mullan) goes way out on a limb in the bidding — initially because he simply likes the looks of the half-thoroughbred, but mostly because he refuses to back down in the auction against the rich, pompous landowner on whose property he and his family reside. (Plus, as mentioned, he's drunk.)
The elder Narracott pays so much for the horse that it becomes a dicey thing as to whether he'll make the rent coming due next winter. In order to make ends meet, in fact, the Narracotts will have to find a way to plow and plant a section of land that is so full of rocks, it's never even been attempted. Had Ted purchased a sturdy plowhorse instead of this show beast, they might stand a better chance at it — but Albert, with his spiritual boy-to-horse connection and all, thinks he can coax the effort out of Joey (as he names his equine friend). The whole town gathers 'round to watch him try...
The field plowing episode represents the climax of the first of three story threads explored in the film. The second one involves Joey's seemingly impossible struggle to survive the depredations of the War to End All Wars (a.k.a. WWI), into which he has been "recruited" by a dashing young cavalryman (Tom Hiddleston). A mounted charge against an encampment of German soldiers, pitting sabres against modern weaponry, is only the first of the wartime dangers Joey must face — and it will be far from the last, and farther still from the most harrowing. In the process, Joey will befriend and mentor a fellow equine "recruit," changing military allegiances according to the vicissitudes of battle.
A third embedded narrative finds Joey and his black horse companion in the care of a young French girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens), who lives on a farm in the deep rural countryside with her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). Emilie develops a fondness for Joey (whom she calls something completely different, not knowing he already has a perfectly serviceable name), and he for her. But the echoing boom of artillery approaches closer every day, threatening to nip their idyllic time together in the withers.
Events culminate several years into the Great War, which by this time has devolved into a miasma of sitting in trenches and slowly succumbing to various forms of rot and dysentery, with occasional suicidal charges against the enemy's zeroed-in rifles, machine guns, and mortars thrown in to break the tedium. Onto the bleak, pitted landscape of No Man's Land, in the midst of raging battle, gallops a horse who's reached the end of his tether. He's mad (as in, out of his wits) and he's not gonna take it any more.
What happens next is one of those rare, unforgettable cinematic events that Spielberg seems to have a knack for bringing to life. It's something that could probably only occur in the movies ... but then — who knows? — stranger things have actually happened, I'm sure.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski filmed most of the countryside scenes, set in England and France, using "golden hour" light, with long shadows and saturated colors for maximum romantic effect. For the battleground scenes, he must have slapped on the gloom filter, as everything appears painted with a brush of mud and soot: the farthest thing from romance one could imagine. And speaking of romance, John Williams composed the stirring, dare I say melodramatic score, which fires up the violins on cue whenever the onscreen action calls for offscreen tears. Hey, I sobbed as I usually do at these sorts of things, so the formula seems pretty effective.
All sorts of supporting players come into the picture at various points — too many to list here, in fact. I would be remiss, however, in failing to mention Emily Watson as Albert's loving and supportive mother Rose; Benedict Cumberbatch as the courageous and foolhardy Major Jamie Stewart; and Eddie Marsan as a war-weary sergeant whose actions in the final reel will determine whether this whole production ends up being a terrible tragedy, or an uplifting family drama.
(I'll never tell.)
To find movie showtimes for War Horse, click here.