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24.12.11

For Your Consideration: 'War Horse'

Steven Spielberg has adapted War Horse, Michael Morpurgo's children's novel from the 1980s, into a film that often seems aimed at the same audience, like an after-school special, except set during World War I. Screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis could not have the book's title character, a horse named Joey, narrate or participate -- without a lot of voice-over, which thankfully the movie eschews -- as it did in the novel and in a stage adaptation from a few years ago, where it was played by an elaborate puppet. In the film, Joey, played by a series of beautiful horses, has a lot of staring silences, on which the viewer is meant to project his reverence for horses. Unfortunately, from the first scene one knows exactly how the story will go, from beginning to end. The faith kept between the horse and Albert Narracott, the boy who raises him (newcomer Jeremy Irvine, cast only because the young Ethan Hawke was not available), will triumph over all -- his father's tendencies toward drink and bad luck (Peter Mullan), the rapacious greed of the family's landlord (David Thewlis), even the devastation of the Great War. Some people may find this kind of movie heartwarming, but if you are like me, you will find it insincere and cloying.

Even worse, the film drags on for far too long (almost two and a half hours), as countless improbable plot twists play out, one after the other. Albert's "thoughtless" father, thinking only of trying to save what he almost lost by buying the horse in the first place, sells Joey to the British cavalry at the outbreak of the war. Joey falls in with two officers, played with straight-backed, stiff-lipped class distinction by Tom Hiddleston (seen recently in the equally saccharine Midnight in Paris) and Benedict Cumberbatch (less distinguished than in the superior Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Tragically, the British cavalry did not realize its own obsolescence in war, with the advent of the machine gun, and the horse quickly falls into German hands. We follow the horse as it gets into and escapes from a series of predicaments and changes of fortune, each less believable than the last.


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You have all the ingredients for a grand Spielbergian success: a broad historical sweep, an equine protagonist that no one could not love, an epic human tragedy that can be soft-pedaled into the background, an eye for the big picture in cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (working on actual film, old school), and a stirring score by John Williams that sounds very much like many of the composer's other scores. Still, Spielberg has managed to make a film that is too violent for young children and too jejune for adults. For your holiday week entertainment, stick to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and other options.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Benedict Cumberbatch is also wonderful in the "Sherlock" series now available on DVD with a second season in store.

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes, I mentioned that in my review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Not sure about wonderful -- quirky and eccentric, yes -- although that is as much a result of the way the show conceives the character of Holmes as anything Cumberbatch does.