Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: "War Horse"

War Horse is Steven Spielberg's second major December release, after The Adventures of Tintin (review here). The film is an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's picture book War Horse. The film comes on the heels of 2007 stage adaptation that premiered in London and has been a fixture in the West End since 2009. The play had its Broadway premiere in 2011 and will be arriving on the Toronto stage in February. The last Spielberg film that I can admit to absolutely loving is 1991's Hook. I have sadly never seen Schindler's List (1994) and have little interest in seeing A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) or War of the Worlds (2005). My chief problem with Spielberg's films is the forced epic nature of the plot and cinematography. War Horse, which centres around a boy and his horse during World War I, is a touching story that is never want for empathy. The young Jeremy Irvine is wonderfully cast as Albert Narracott, but there are so many sweeping camera shots that undercut the broad scope of the film while simply trying too hard to symbolically emphasize the journey of the boy and his horse. Like many Spielberg films, War Horse features very few well known actors. Emily Watson is perhaps the most noteworthy, having received much critical praise since her Oscar-nominated debut in Breaking the Waves (1996). Watson is the true highlight of an otherwise overindulgent film. War Horse, like Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, is a film that has been begging for Oscar since its first trailer was released at the of June. War Horse is a film, like Moneyball, that simply exists. It is hard to hate, but it is also extremely hard to love. It tries too hard and has two needless characters who completely ruin the film's climax.

Beginning in Devon, England, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is a young teenage boy who has been admiring a young thoroughbred foal. His parents rent a farm and grow vegetables while struggling to make ends meet. One day his father Ted (Peter Mullan) buys the horse at auction when he was supposed to be buying a work horse, much to the dismay of his wife Rose (Watson). Ted has a bad leg and is an alcoholic. The only way he can afford to keep the farm is if he can get the horse to plow lower field so they can plant more vegetables. Albert, having fallen in love with the horse and naming him Joey, sets out to train the horse. The whole town comes to the farm to watch Albert and Joey struggle to plow the field. It is an unsuccessful outing and many townsfolk leave laughing, but as the rain falls the earth becomes easier to plow, letting Albert and Joey complete their task. All is well until a terrible rainstorm ruins the crop. Ted, unbeknownst to Albert, takes the horse to town and sells him to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). Albert, brokenhearted, tries to enlist in the army, but is too young. Captain Nicholls, taking Ted's regimental pennant, promises to try to return Joey to him after the war. Joey's journey takes him to France and his strength and willpower help keep him alive, but eventually Albert is forced to enlist and both their lives are in jeopardy.

As I previously said, there are two characters in the story who ruined the climax for me. These are two characters who are featured at the beginning of the film, but who exist simply for comic relief. These are two boys from Albert's childhood, one his bumbling best friend and the other a rival. I found it incredibly hard to believe - and that it detracted from the story - that these three boys would all still be alive and together at the end of the war. It is too simple and too easy a way to neatly tie up the loose string of the film. I have not read the book, nor have I seen (or will see) the stage production, but I would be interested in learning how this particular moment is handled. Is Steven Spielberg trying too hard to give Albert and Joey an emotionally satisfying reunion? In a film that had done little to sway me one way or another (besides an intriguing young French girl played by Celine Buckens), it was at this moment that War Horse fell flat. Granted, it took over two hours to get to this point, but I was a little unimpressed. We must remember, however, that I hate forced happy endings. I might be jaded, but there is nothing worse than an unauthentic ending (remember The Devil Wears Prada?). War Horse wants to be a sweeping epic, but really it is a story about a boy trying to reunite with a horse during World War I. It is a little hard to believe, and the ending is too forced and too compact.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

No comments:

Post a Comment