Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Film Review: War Horse

Having spent much of the noughties dabbling in twisty sci-fi pics such as Minority Report and A.I. it's back to basics for Spielberg, once again forging a technically faultless, warm, heartfelt family drama in the same spirit which gained him notoriety during the eighties and nineties. And for a man who has spent half his movie-making career embracing the turbulent decades of the thirties and forties it certainly isn't surprising that Spielberg once again busts out his time machine.

When nebbish Ted Narracott (Mullan) outbids a local gentry man (Thewlis) on a feisty thoroughbred in order to prove a point, his son Albert (Irvine) immediately takes to the horse he names Joey. However when war is declared the British army soon draft Joey into the care of a well-meaning cavalry officer (Hiddleston). As Albert pines for his companion so begins a campaign which takes this "remarkable" horse across the battlefields of the First World War.

War Horse harks back to those days of a simpler time for films, that of a linear narrative which featured a beginning, a middle and an end. If you've seen a Spielberg film before then you will instantly know from the off that Joey and Albert are destined to be reunited and it is here where lies the problem with War Horse. While there's nothing wrong with its old-fashioned mechanics it does however make everything consistently predictable. Further, tales using such narrative structures typically involve blunt use of sentimentality which cause its payoff to be somewhat tepid. Alas Spielberg is someone utterly incapable of understatement and while this may have worked in the past his emotional pageantry now appears dated. And at two and a half hours long this can be a tad tedious.

While Albert is ostensibly the main human character his journey from boy to manhood remains curiously nascent. This is particularly annoying given the lengthy amount of time spent introducing us to him and the horse. War Horse, as its title suggests, is foremost a film about a horse. So much so that it almost leaves an impression of its main human lead as having a slightly unnerving affection toward his equine friend. A normal young man Albert's age might have a sweetheart or a group of mates, or maybe even take at least a passing interest in other people. But no. There's definitely no hint that he engages in regular social interaction. Instead Albert lives for letters updating him on the condition of his horse from the front. And as soon as he's old enough Albert joins the army, primarily in pursuit of his horse. Sure, it's one thing to form a bond with an animal, but for it to supersede all your human relationships is just plain weird. Latent bestiality concerns aside, underdeveloped characters are unfortunately endemic throughout. War Horse makes a habit of introducing us to potentially interesting characters with a huge potential for growth only to never develop them further. In that sense there is a feeling of incompletion here. Yes, we know what happens to Joey the horse, but not really about anyone else.

The most striking aspect of War Horse is how distinctly anti-war it is. If there's one thing it does reasonably well it is to capture the wasteful nature of conflict. The thought of 'poor horse, stupid humanity' soon begins to take hold in a strange twist of species allegiance as we watch the poor beast become a pawn of human petulance. Joey's journey takes him into the service of the British, the Germans and the French, all of whom exhaust their 'supply' of horse power. Perhaps surprisingly it is those surly horse-eating Frenchmen who are portrayed as the most villainous employers of Joey, working their horses to death hulking huge artillery pieces up mud hills. Certainly, this makes a change from Hollywood's quintessential baddy, our jackbooted German friends. However the principle remains that here we have this noble, innocent creature cajoled into facilitating man's destruction of one another. There is definitely a sense that maybe it would be better if Earth's creatures were left unencumbered by the dastardly pursuits of man, however you interpret that.

Still, War Horse has a fair amount going for it. The visuals are beautiful, using a gorgeous palette to capture the English countryside, equally impressive in its use of brown and grey to paint a palpable picture of the harrowing and desolate landscapes of the Western front. And while its narrative structure might be dated it does have a tendency to induce nostalgia pangs for a type of film from a bygone age. Certainly this is no post-modern tale of twists and turns, but to be fair Spielberg does have a knack for a highly enjoyable brand of storytelling. And while this is probably a bit mawkish by today's standards, War Horse is above all unique in its intergenerational appeal. It is one of those films where at midday around Easter kids, adults and grandparents gather round their TVs to watch. And that is a very rare quality in films nowadays.