Tuesday, 17 January 2012

War Horse

2011. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis and Niels Arestrup. ●●●○○

Each film, each work of art in fact, has a story outside of it's plot of narrative. It's simply impossible in our era of electronic communications to avoid building expectations of a project based on it's genesis, the creative team involved or the relentless marketing drive including the reactions from press and critics. In the case of Steven Spielberg's War Horse, adapted directly from Michael Morpurgo's critically acclaimed children's novel - although clearly influenced by the award winning National Theatre production famed for it's innovative puppetry - the narrative revolves around the stories capacity to reduce otherwise robust individuals to uncontrollable crying machines, quivering with spasms of weeping. At every stage of the production process the audience have been reminded of the emotional resonance, the trailer brought a lump to my throat and even at the Royal Premiere here in the UK last week the papers obsessed with the Duchess of Cambridge's tears. And yet, and yet...

I watched the film and did not cry.

Don't get me wrong I am neither cold hearted (I cry when I hear the Marseillaise) nor am I resistant to sentimentalism, indeed last year I placed Warrior on my top ten best film list purely on it's impact on my lacrimal system. But War Horse failed to get a response.

Why did it fail? And what does that mean it terms of the quality of the movie?

If you haven't yet seen the movie (play/read the book) it follows a typical boy and his pet plotline, with the two apparent soulmates drawn together through a series of unlikely co-incidences followed by an even more horrific passage of separation which inevitable leads to reconciliation prior to a satisfying (or deeply shocking, depending on the writer) denouement. Here the Devon farming idyll (surprisingly comfortable looking cottage for a hand to mouth tenant, with a plough half buried in the middle of a rock infested field and Emily Watson threatening moustache twirling landowner David Thewlis with knitting needles) is shattered by the First World War whereupon Peter Mullan's cash strapped alcoholic sells the eponymous equine, Joey, to Tom Hiddleston's cavalry captain. The war than conspires to keep Joey and his trainer Albert Narracott (played winsomely by newcomer Jeremy Irvine) apart for the majority of the movie.

The film allows Albert's side of the story to slip into the background and bravely concentrates on the neutral animal innocently assisting it's latest owner, whether David Kross' teenage deserter, jam-making Frenchman Niels Arestrup or an underdeveloped German artillery sergeant, culminating in Joey's panicked gallop through no man's land temporarily paused by entanglements of barbed wire.

This episodic structure is largely responsible for my own lack of empathy, the many brief human handlers whisk by without developing the characters sufficiently, reducing their sacrifices to punchlines, mere obstacles for Joey to clamber across before that final inevitable reunion. Even the war is hell motif that we identify with the Great War is somehow softened, and I'm not just talking about the soft approach to carnage, an understandable concession in what amounts to a children's movie but the sanitised trenches and the lack of pause for the human (even horse) cost of the conflict. Supporting characters die, lush farmland is ravaged, the camera pans over fields of animal and human corpses, but all this is dressing to the horse and his boy plot. That said two metaphors did work for me: the gradual increase in violent imagery with the first character death pointedly offscreen and the final push over the trenches as visceral as you could expect (bearing in mind it's no Private Ryan) and rise of technology evidenced with the tank signifying the equine cost has been to no purpose. Although what that tank thought it was doing is anyone's guess.

The design and look of the picture is excellent, in interviews Spielberg has rightly talked up Dartmoor as being a character in it's own right, grounding the movies home front sections. Janusz Kaminski shoots the moor like a Fordian homage, complete with painterly sunsets and rugged landscapes. Later his lensing of the Western Front, whether in the nightmarish chase by Joey or the eerie coming together of two lowly corporals freeing the animal and evoking the Christmas Day truces, adds a mysticism sorely needed.

Ultimately War Horse doesn't rise to the occasion, and whilst I can grudgingly recommend it, I think it's safe to say the play may be a better option.

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