Review: War Horse (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg

**

Ooh arr, ooh arr! Certain accents lend themselves to exploitation and/or mockery in film and TV. The Devon accent that features in War Horse cannot but bring to mind simpler places and simple tastes (Combine Harvesters, anyone?). This is quite apropos since, in its emotions and themes, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is as simple and unchallenging as films come.

This review could have been written with the kind of affectation like the ones sported by the likes of Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson, but that’s a little too much to ask of a reader. Any’oo, there’s a poooor ‘orse, and ‘e gets taken awaigh from (alright, THAT’s enough!) his  young owner Albert (Irvine, surprisingly devoid of blemish for a farmhand). The horse, named Joey, was purchased at great cost by Albert’s father (Peter Mullan at his most restrained) much to mother’s (Watson) vexation. Throughout the film, Joey becomes an instrument of defiance and an object of affection for whoever possesses him. Joey is bought as a foal, and Albert raises him to be a fine young stallion. As usually happens in these things, the pair are separated at their finest moment by the outbreak of World War One, and Joey is taken by the army for the war effort. Irvine is a fairly bland lead, but Joey proves quite an engaging character. One could hope they dispense with the human characters as the film goes on. Alas, that would be just too daring.

What begins as a painfully unchallenging depiction of friendship between man and beast becomes a morally simplistic journey across Europe, as Joey goes from French battlefields to German battalion to Belgian farmhouse. Along the way, Joey encounters people who aren’t so much characters as moral standpoints and/or plot devices. There’s the dashing British army captain (Tom Hiddleston) who promises to get Joey back to Albert in one piece (The army is no place for idealists!). There are the brothers in the German infantry (Leonard Carow and David Kross) who take a shine to the horse; and then there is the Belgian man and his granddaughter who fall in love with the horse and try to hide him from the approaching German army. This hideously cutesy portion of War Horse sees the wasting of the mighty Niels Arestrup as the grandfather; he was in A Prophet, for chrissakes! Give him some grit to work with! Then again, this is a Spielberg film that was co-written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings, Love Actually); simplistic sentimental gushing is the order of the day. The moralizing reaches a low point when a Geordie soldier and a German soldier emerge from the trenches and unite to free the horse trapped in wire in No Man’s Land. ‘ear that? An ‘orse ended the war! Ooh aarrrrr! In the meantime, why not play a kind of bingo game with the vast number of brilliant actors wasted in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em appearances. Liam Cunningham, David Thewlis and Benedict Cumberbatch are worthy of a lot more than they are given in War Horse.

For all the condescension in the tone and plot of the film, War Horse looks and sounds great. The recreations of the battlefields are grim and dark, and provide some of the grit sadly lacking in the characterizations. A scene in which Joey runs through the trenches is breathtaking. John Williams’ score is expectedly-but-brilliantly rousing, and DP Janusz Kaminski makes the verdant hills of southern England look green and lush. However, when we glimpse Joey stare off into a none-more-perfect sunset towards the end of the film (It’s a Spielberg film; don’t take this as a spoiler!), you’ll need to check your blood sugar levels to make sure the overt sweetness of War Horse hasn’t induced diabetes. Ooh, and indeed, arr.

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