December 22, 2011

War Horse

A tearjerker she can't refuse

Grade: B +
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Twewlis and Tom Hiddleston
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 26 min.

Steven Spielberg remains one of the most important and influential filmmakers in American cinema. However, gone are the salad days when he redefined – nay, reinvented – the adventure and science-fiction genres before ably tackling such weighty issues as the Holocaust, war, racism and terrorism. Spielberg hasn’t made a feature film since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a dalliance with self-parody, and he hasn’t made a good movie since 2005’s Munich.

This holiday season, Spielberg returns with two films that demonstrate the direction of his latter-day oeuvre. The Adventures of Tintin resembles an over-caffeinated, animated installment of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. And the handsome, soppy War Horse, based on both Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel and the Tony Award-winning play of the same name, allows Spielberg, now in his mid-sixties, to check a few more items off his cinematic bucket list. The director of Saving Private Ryan makes his World War I movie, borrowing from the antiwar works of Lewis Milestone, notably “All Quiet on the Western Front.” He continues his \ John Ford worship with obvious visual homage to How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man that bookends the film. And Spielberg, ever the rank sentimentalist, saddles up his takes on Black Beauty and The Black Stallion with a story about, yes, a boy and his horse.

Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), a soddy, snockered farmer in pastoral Devonshire, England, squanders 30 guineas on the titular feisty foal, later named Joey, instead of a plow horse needed to save the family farm. Reared by the loving hand of Albert (Jeremy Irvine), Ted’s son, the half-thoroughbred eventually turns heads in the village by tilling the rocky farmland. When the turnip crop is washed out on the eve of war’s outbreak, however, Ted sells Joey to the British army over Albert’s teary objections.

The four-year odyssey that follows chronicles Joey’s stint on the French front, beginning as mount for a captain (Tom Hiddleston) in the English cavalry. Events lead Joey and his black stallion war buddy into a series of (mis)adventures, including the brief care of a sick French girl and her dotting grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and harsh service in a German artillery unit where exhausted equines are regularly and brutally put out of their misery. According to most estimates, at least 6-8 million horses perished during World War I.

Spielberg adeptly captures the transitory nature of the Great War, one of the last fought with horses and swords. During a mounted cavalry charge through a German encampment, a British commander responds to the sound of rapid machine gun fire from a nearby tree line with a look of stunned horror. Spielberg’s depiction of trench warfare and fierce slogs across muddy battlefields is far less bloody than Saving Private Ryan, but it still effectively conveys the war’s sheer brutality.

Eschewing any overt nationalistic bent, War Horse remains distinctly neutral in its mission to demonize war, not people. After barbed wire entangles a harried, runaway Joey in the middle of no man’s land, the warring squadrons call a temporary truce so a representative from each side can free the wounded animal. “You speak good English,” says the British soldier; “I speak English well,” replies his German counterpart. When the two grunts settle a legitimate dispute over future possession of the horse by a simple coin flip, it’s a revealing distillation of the senselessness of waging war.

The rest of War Horse is held together by a glue of Spielberg schmaltz that’s easy to stick with – and sniffle through – until it fosters a series false of endings and tidy contrivances, mostly involving Albert’s military service and his ceaseless search for pal Joey. However, even the sappy slow spots are varnished with the exquisite art direction of Andrew Ackland-Snow (the Harry Potter series) and Oscar-winner and longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski’s brilliant cinematography. War Horse is a strikingly beautiful motion picture in the most classic sense, unaided by 3-D or other visual accoutrements of the age. It is the work of an august artisan who shows he still has a thing or two to teach the new generation of filmmakers once weaned on his work.

Neil Morris

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