Friday, January 06, 2012

Spielberg goes old school with 'War Horse'

In “War Horse,” director Steven Spielberg takes a relatively short children’s book by Michael Morpurgo and expands it into a rousing epic two-and-a-half-hour-long movie. It is an example of majestic film making as only few living filmmakers can do.

Set during World War I, “War Horse,” which was already turned into a successful play in London, is about a boy and his horse and the war that separated them.

The boy is Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and the the horse is the spirited Joey, who was bought by Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) as a work horse. The film spends a good amount of time in the Narracott farmstead. This is a film that takes its time.

Spielberg is making an old-fashioned film in the style of someone like John Ford. The English countryside of the early scenes bring to mind Ford’s “The Quiet Man.”

Large portions of the film almost play like a silent film only relying on visuals and the music to get across the emotions.The score is sweeping and huge. The visuals have an equally large scope with the camera slowly moving along the beautiful landscapes.

A standout sequence in this early part of the film is Albert and Joey's triumphant plowing of a rocky field during a rain storm.

Albert is the lead human character of the story, but Joey the horse is really the star. Irvine, in his first film, as Albert is solid enough. He’s earnest and sincere and not much more, but that is all the role calls of him. It is Joey’s journey that is the compelling one and it is an extraordinary one.

After Joey is sold into the cavalry he goes for the hands of British captain (Tom Hiddleston), pulling a German ambulance, the adopted hands of a French grandfather and granddaughter (Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens), back to German hands to pull artillery and eventually back to the British army.

Even though there are war sequences, this is not a film that chooses sides. If there is a villain it is war in general, not the specific combatants. There are no good guys or bad guys. This is best shown in a scene in which a British soldier and German solider work to save Joey from being entangled in barbed wire.

Like Much of Spielberg’s work, “War Horse” plays on a big emotional scale. This isn’t a subtle movie. There aren’t so much characters as types. In lesser hands this would be an issue, but not with Spielberg.

The script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis is at times hokey or too sincere, but Spielberg is such a strong filmmaker that even in the moments in which you know you’re being manipulated it is hard to not succumb to the emotions at hand. This is a weepy, for sure, with both tears of sadness and joy.

The caliber of the performance also helps sell the more forced moments. Emily Watson as Albert’s mother gives a performance of quiet grace. It is the familiar stubborn, sassy, but loving mother archetype, but she instills the character with real warmth.

Hiddleston, who was so good as Loki in last summer’s “Thor,” also makes a lasting impression as the British captain who promises to take care of Joey. It is small role, but Hiddleston is an actor with tremendous screen presence and likability.

Arestrup is wonderful as the French grandfather. It is a performance full of tenderness and humor.

The film plays almost exclusively on an emotional level rather than intellectual one and is effective in how direct and open it is. The movie is made in a way that is easily accessible and digestible. This is mainstream film making of the highest order.

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