Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis
Lee Hall, Michael Morpurgo, Richard Curtis
Walt Disney Studios
Extras on the DVD are limited to a single featurette, War Hourse: The Look. This is a six-and-a-half-minute featurette on the locations, the clothing, the art design. If you can splurge for Blu-Ray, the extras become quite impressive.
War Horse is close to a spectacular film. War Horse is close to the film that director Steven Spielberg wants it to be, a film that borders on epic awesomeness and oozes the golden era of Hollywood from its every cinematic pore.
The problem with War Horse, the thing that keeps it from actually becoming a spectacular film, is that Spielberg is simply trying too hard to create an awe-inspiring, visually stunning, and emotionally compelling Hollywood classic. Time and time again, War Horse is telling us, the audience, exactly what we're going to think, feel and experience and, whether we like it or not, Spielberg's darn well determined to pull us into this inspiring, feel good story.
Based upon a successful 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo turned into Tony Award-winning stage prioduction, War Horse is the perfect material for Spielberg, one of America's finest makers of children's and family films with a seemingly innate ability to weave together extraordinary filmmaking into stories that capture both the innocence and complexity of childhood. At its very root, War Horse is the story of an irrevocable bond between a horse named Joey and a young man named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Joey enters Albert's world thanks to his stubborn father, Ted (Peter Mullan), a man who seems to have lived in a permanently drunken stupor since his return from war and who doesn't quite see the error of his ways as he outbids his landlord (David Thewlis) for the horse. Albert's home is held together by his mother, Rose (Emily Watson), a woman both fiercely loyal and hard working.
Eventually, World War I arrives and no amount of sentimental attachment can save the relationship between Albert and Joey as Joey is sold by Ted to the British Army in an act that is unquestionably logical if achingly lacking in humanity. The War Horse that follows isn't so much a story of the relationship between Albert and Joey as it is the journeys that both must make now that their lives will be irrevocably impacted by the coldness and unpredictability of a world at war. Joey's ownership, or at least possession of Joey, will change on multiple occasions on both sides of the war and amongst those only hoping to avoid the war. Spielberg, as much as he is creating a heartwarming film here, doesn't hold back on the cruelties of war and it must be especially noted for small children that in at least one excruciating scene involving Joey the anguish and anxiety are nearly heart-wrenching.
The story of War Horse is deeply moving. The performances, as well, are quite often deeply moving. Why then does it feel as if Spielberg is pushing the issue so hard when there's such a fundamentally involving and satisfying film already unfolding? Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, easily one of the best working in the business, goes immensely overboard here with camera work that is almost uncomfortably stagey and emotionally manipulative. War Horse features a disturbing number of shots containing backlit faces in silhouette posing eloquently while the simply godawful original score of John Williams lumbers to and fro in the background. Instead of trusting his material, Spielberg takes what should have been a spectacular film and turns it into a merely good one through his seemingly insatiable need to spoon-feed the film's sentimentality to his audience as if we're not going to get it unless he points it out.
War Horse manages to capture the brutality of war without, for the most part, reducing itself to unnecessarily graphic violence. The film is deservedly rated PG-13, though the film's most graphic scene actually involves Joey and, as well, ends with what may very well be the film's most sentimental, life-affirming moment. Spielberg doesn't take side in the war, as well, with both Germans and the British having moments of humanity and inhumanity.
The film's best performance, perhaps appropriately so, comes from that of this fine and majestic horse that portrays Joey. Joey is a magnificent animal and, I might add, a tremendously expressive one. It's virtually impossible to watch his story unfolding here without falling deeply in love with him and actually caring about how his story ends. The humans that surround Joey are talented as well, with several members of the largely British cast working against type. Irvine's performance as Albert is subtly effective, building its credibility over the course of the film. Peter Mullan does a tremendous job as Ted, Albert's drunken yet loving father. Emily Watson takes an almost non-descript role and brings it to life in wondrous ways. Niels Arestrup, as a kindly grandfather who loses virtually everything in the war, is so compelling that as the film winds down you have a hard time choosing just how you want it to actually end.
War Horse is so close to being an incredibly brilliant film that it's hard not to lament the fact that Spielberg just couldn't hold back a bit more and simply allow the film to unfold naturally. Yet, it's also a tremendous testimony to the immensely talented Spielberg that a 3-star, "B" graded film is considered a bit of a disappointment.
If only War Horse hadn't been such a work horse, this beautiful to be hold yet impossible to surrender to film could have been yet the latest in Spielberg's true masterpieces. Instead, it's simply a reminder that even when Spielberg's not up to par he's 17 hands higher than a good majority of filmmakers working today.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic