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In the second of two - count ‘em - two Steven Spielberg features in one Christmas movie season, we find our director on a very different course than his whimsical, quasi-animated, The Adventures of Tintin.  Instead of cartoon fluff, he regales us with a story of war, devastation and loss that somehow provides the Yule log to warm up the cockles of even the most stone-cold hearts.  Based originally on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo that later became a successful play, we have Spielberg’s adaptation of War Horse.

In a rural Devon, a young boy is granted a miracle:  A vain test of wills between his stubborn father and the richest man in town grants the teenager a completely useless animal; a horse too wild to bring to harness and too weak to plow the family’s farmland.  Realising his error could make them homeless, Albie’s father intends to sell the horse, but by then Albie has seen something in the spirited stallion that no one else does and begs for the chance to make things right.  Working patiently, Albie creates a bond of trust with the horse -- now named Joey -- that eventually has the animal moving heaven and earth to do as Albie asks.  It all comes too little too late, as in a last ditch effort to save their home, Albie’s father sells Joey to the army, who have come to town recruiting after the eruption of the new world war.  The kindly officer who now owns Joey promises to care for the horse and bring him back to Albie if he possibly can, and after a tearful goodbye and promises of reunion, Albie watches Joey go.  We then see the life of the soldier on four legs as Joey endures every hardship of his two-legged companions; horrific battle and death all around, imprisonment, the creation and abrupt ending of new friendships and all the daily terrors of war.

Magical, this; truly epic and magnificent.  Spielberg takes a subject he’s become an expert on; the cinematic portrayal of war and makes it both gruelingly real and at the same time like a fairy tale.  Making a horse the star of your film is already setting up the audience for some heartfelt reactions, but Spielberg makes Joey’s interactions with the various people and situations he comes across so meaningful that it transcends any cutesiness while balancing out the inherent horror of the surroundings.  People die, animals die, families and homes are torn apart, there is cruelty and waste everywhere; yet there is also beauty, there is love and real friendship, we’re shown hope and humanity even in the midst of a battlefield.  Two of my favourite scenes are jarringly different; the first being Joey’s foray into the French countryside, where he meets a sweet but sickly young girl and her doting grandfather.  Joey’s presence makes Emilie stronger in both her fragile physique and her will, and her grandfather cannot help but be moved watching the child’s joy.  Sadly, like all of the friendships Joey’s made, war cannibalises everything as Emilie’s home is ransacked and Joey is made wartime property and stolen from the family.  The other standout moment is a scene where Joey becomes the impetus of an unlikely partnership between a British and German soldier, whose collective concern for the wounded stallion initiates an international détente.  It’s the funniest moment of the film; the two combatants work under the white flag, trading good-natured nationalistic barbs (no pun intended) and finding themselves to be just two decent blokes doing their duty and trying to live long enough to get to their respective homes.  If only all wars could be so easily sorted, which is kind of the point of War Horse; all this destruction and death and for what?  In the end, if there were more of the kindness and compassion exhibited by the two soldiers from opposing sides, there’d be no need for such deplorable horror and waste of life.  Trying hard not to go into the brutality of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List as this is meant to be a family film, Spielberg still pushes some boundaries with regard to the wartime violence: He pulls the camera back far away to set up the cruel execution of two unsuccessful defectors.  Albie’s childhood friend and eventual brother-in-arms, the slow-witted Andy, literally disappears into the mist after a poison gas attack.  Very little is graphically shown, but it’s impossible not to connect the dots, which may frighten smaller children; and, yes, there is terrible stuff that happens to the horses in the film, again, not overly graphic, but sometimes quite hard to endure no matter what the viewer’s age.  Concession stand owners could make a mint selling Kleenex packets for this one.

However troubling the war aspect, one cannot deny the film’s incredible beauty:  Longtime Spielberg cohort, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński knocks it out of the park, filming War Horse in dreamlike, saturated colours and wide, panoramic frames that practically move across the screen as if one is turning pages in a storybook.  The harrowing scene of a terrified Joey hurtling blindly through dark, dangerous trenches is Oscar-worthy.  The performances by a cast equally divided between well-known European actors and first-timers are all excellent.  Emily Watson captures the tough stoicness of the farmer’s wife whose main concern is the roof over her family’s head and the well-being of her only son.  Tom Hiddleston’s body is clearly possessed by the ghost of British acting legend, Leslie Howard during his scenes as the kindly, heroic officer who sends drawings of the horse back to Albie.  In those scenes, Benedict Cumberbatch once again delivers a brief but memorable moment as the prideful, blowhard leader of his garrison.  Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens as the family that harbors Joey are heartwarming as we watch the girl find a reason to live because of the love she has for the horse.  Her moments of joy become a symbol of the hope for peace that the end of the war must bring.  Toby Kebbell is all homespun common sense and backhand humour as the private who simply cannot bear to watch Joey suffer, and risks his life to save the horse armed only with the Twenty-Third Psalm on his lips.  His chemistry with his partner-in-animal-rescue, Hinnerk Schönemann as the German soldier is wonderful.

Is War Horse sentimental?  Yes, beautifully so.  There is a scene that is unapologetically schmaltzy and somewhat ham-fisted toward the end of the film, but after all the brutality we’ve experienced for the previous two hours, isn’t remotely out of place.  Is it a fairy tale, after all, and a very good one, indeed.  There have been more egregious attempts at tear-jerking by Spielberg in other films that were not nearly as effective or affecting as this.  This epic captures the essence of classic movie-making and needs to be seen on a big screen.  The heartfelt and emotional War Horse is one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies and certainly one of the best films of the year.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

December 21st, 2011


Click here for our exclusive coverage of the War Horse Gala World Premiere in New York City.


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