REVIEW: Gorgeous War Horse Hits Sweet Spot Between Cornball and Classic
Steven Spielberg's War Horse is masterly, accomplished, stirring, a real bang-up, show-off job -- and watching it, I kept wishing it had been made by someone else, someone younger who hasn't already proved dozens of times, beyond the point of redundancy, how much he cares about what he puts on the screen.
Because Spielberg does care, and not just about the movies he makes himself. His forebears are with him every step of the way: With War Horse he tries on many masks, including those of David Lean, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick and David O. Selznick, just because he's Steven Spielberg and he can. He wants to be everyone and everything at once: At times it's way too much, but at others it's a relief. In an Oscar-grabby end-of-year movie landscape littered with itsy-bitsy fuzzy-wuzzy literary adaptations and colorless apologias for lady monsters (I'm looking at you, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Iron Lady), why shouldn't there be room for an old-school road-show picture with crazy-ass classical-filmmaking values? There's something to be said for just sitting back and delivering yourself into the hands of a guy who creates a dissolve in which a piece of bumpy knitting transforms itself into a rock-strewn, hardscrabble landscape. Who else today would dare?
Maybe it's that unapologetic cornpone aesthetic, even more than all that virtuoso filmmaking, that makes War Horse so engaging. From the moment you see the foal Joey, having only recently squeezed forth from his mother's womb, finding his matchstick legs on sturdy English soil, you're either in the game or you're not. Later, when Joey's a bit older, he's bought by an impoverished farmer, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), to spite his arrogant landlord (David Thewlis), who also had been eyeing the horse at auction. The purchase is immediately problematic: Joey isn't a workhorse, which is what Ted and his family, including wife Rose (a half-winsome, half-grave Emily Watson) and teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), need in order to save their failing farm. But Albert has already fallen in love with Joey, who was born and raised on a neighboring property -- Albert had long been wooing the horse, discerning in him not just beauty but sterling character.
Albert is right, of course: Joey not only helps save the farm, but when war -- the Great one -- breaks out, he's sold out from under poor Albert and goes on to endure numerous hardships and touch the lives of everyone who's lucky enough to stroke his noble, glossy, star-splashed head. Those include a noble but ill-fated English cavalry officer, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a French farmer and his fragile but feisty granddaughter (Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens), and two nameless soldiers, one English and one German, who momentarily -- I kid you not -- forget their nation's differences and reach across the bleak stretches of No Man's Land to perform the ultimate act of kindness.
Will Joey ever make it back to Albert, with whom he clearly longs to be? You can probably guess. But it's important not to judge the bones of the story until you see what Spielberg does with it. (The script was adapted, by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, from Michael Morpurgo's slim, direct 1982 young adult novel. That material has also, of course, been turned into an acclaimed play, with puppets substituting for real horses; Spielberg was inspired to make the film after seeing the play.) This is the kind of excess you can get away with only when you're Steven Spielberg, and maybe not even then. The filmmaker has surrounded himself with his usual posse, an all-star lineup of crackerjack craftspeople: Janusz Kaminski shoots the craggily gorgeous Devon countryside as if he were looking at it through God's eyes. At one point he lights Joey in his stable -- the character is played by 14 different horses -- as if he were the Blessed Virgin on a holy card, a nimbus of gold emanating from his visage. John Williams, who has written some of the most superb scores in modern film but who, like every other superstar composer, is also sometimes guilty of phoning them in, is on top of his game here: The combat footage is heralded by lots of meaty brass and strings, but the most beautiful sections are the more pastoral ones, where the composer channels another Williams (or, rather a Vaughan Williams), Ralph: You can hear traces of the trilling sweetness and delicacy of "The Lark Ascending," one of the most beautiful and most quintessentially English pieces of music ever composed.
For the actors, War Horse is something of a round robin, the action passing from one character to another and only sometimes weaving back again. Spielberg is often too sentimental a director, and there are moments in War Horse that come close to being spongey-soft. But somehow the actors here save Spielberg from his worst impulses: Hiddleston plays that cavalry officer with the kind of slow-burning dignity that's more archetypal than stereotypical; with his scrubbed-clean skin and carefully pomaded hair, he seems to know what England he's fighting for, and he dresses the part until the end. Irvine, making his film debut, shows a suitable naïvete tempered by good instincts -- he avoids mawkishness, perhaps only narrowly, but it's a performance that always has mud on its shoes. And Arestrup packs a great deal of unfiltered feeling into the small role of the French grandfather. The bags beneath his eyes are packed with sorrow and happiness and everything in between.
In War Horse Spielberg indulges his most melodramatic impulses, and sometimes they lead him astray: He's a little cheap, for example, in the way he uses animal endangerment and suffering as a pulse point -- a sequence in which the camera fixates on Joey's stumbling leg as he painstakingly pulls an artillery cart that's far too heavy for him is typical Spielbergian overkill.
But melodrama isn't a dirty word, and Lord knows there are few contemporary directors who know how to do it well, if at all. This movie is also, of course, an extended wartime metaphor, one that's aware of the costs to both sides: Spielberg shows young, callow German and English soldiers alike, all unaware of what's about to befall them. And when Spielberg goes big -- as he does in the picture's integral cavalry charge sequence -- he does it right, capturing the essence of wartime chaos with clear images and clean cutting. (It's almost as tense and meticulous a battle sequence as the one the young Branagh gave us in Henry V.)
I saw War Horse at a critics' screening and noted plenty of snickering around me, at the picture's sometimes too-naked emotion, at its "Look at me, I'm Steven Spielberg!" panoramic landscapes, at the beatific lighting of the equine central character. The downer, of course, is that we already know Spielberg knows how to pull off all of these things well, perhaps better than anyone -- now that Lean and Ford and everyone else is dead, it's as if he feels he has no one to top but himself, and that's a sad place for a filmmaker to be. But for all its borrowing from old Hollywood, I don't think War Horse is particularly nostalgic. The word I'd use is wistful. It's the largest, most lavish handful of wistfulness money can buy, and sometimes it's too much. Yet it's nice to know that even Steven Spielberg can still wish for something.