Spielberg Goes Old Fashioned with 'War Horse'
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Few directors possess Steven Spielberg's gift for imagining movie worlds with such dynamism and exhilarating cinematic precision. His Dickensian taste for tales of abandonment and reunion speaks to the lost child in all of us, defining the primal desire for home, in boy or man, alien or artificial intelligence, war or peace. But in some circles, Spielberg's storytelling has long been dissed for sentimentality of the calculating kind. Many resent and resist the masterly audacity of this director's stylistic embraces, dismissing them as manipulative and faux-naïve. To which I've almost always riposted, "Bah, humbug!"
But not this season. When it comes to "War Horse," nearly every Spielbergian touch goes toxic. Like Dickens and D. W. Griffith, the artist who dreamed "The Color Purple" and "A.I." has always been able to walk right up to the edge of sentimental sadism to harvest powerfully authentic emotion. But in this new, so-called family film, Spielberg's sense of balance has gone MIA. "War Horse" careens wildly from treacle to horror, from blatant artifice to hyper-realism, from one genre to another. Tonally jarring and structurally disjointed, it's a punishingly long and bumpy ride.
Under cloudless blue skies, in a Devon meadow so green it's an advert for paradise, a pretty little foal is born. Once grown, the thoroughbred catches the bleary eye of drunken Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), who buys him to spite his landlord (David Thewlis). Never mind that what the gimpy tenant farmer needs is a big, strong plow horse.
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Though Mrs. Narracott (Emily Watson, stuck in the Good Mother schtick) berates her feckless spouse for his spendthrift ways, son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is soon making goo-goo eyes at his new pet. Trouble is, there's zero chemistry between Albert and the horse he names Joey (see "National Velvet" for really passionate horse love). Don't blame any of the 13 horses who play Joey; the problem lies with handsome but dull Mr. Irvine, who can't act a lick.
Reportedly, Spielberg colored and composed (with the help of master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) this pastoral prelude to war in the rich hues and verdant landscapes he loved in '50s British movies like Michael Powell's "Gone to Earth." Unfortunately, the Narracotts' super-picturesque stone farmhouse resembles deluxe Disney digs, and Devon's rural settings are so glowingly "designed," so saturated with Edenic significance, it's like emotional neon. Even top-notch actors Mullan, Watson and Thewlis can't transcend their "types" or Spielberg's insulated unreality. The final false note in this idyllic "cartoon" is an irascible white goose, given to snapping at pants legs.
Minimally anthropomorphized, Albert's beloved horse is our emotional ride through Spielberg's episodic narrative. Yet empathy for Joey's increasingly horrific experiences often plays second fiddle to Spielberg's cinematic flourishes. When the colorful Devon townsfolk lean along a fence, watching as Albert and his thoroughbred struggle to plow a field, the director's more focused on evoking Fordian community ("The Quiet Man," "How Green Was My Valley") than Joey's potential laming as the thoroughbred's fragile legs give way.
Sold as a war horse to an English officer (Tom Hiddleston, the first actor to really shine in "War Horse"), Joey miraculously survives an anachronistic charge straight into German machine guns. Shooting from above, Spielberg surveys a green field strewn with dead men and horses, the shocking waste almost prettified by distance and the god's-eye view. Attended by Spielberg's soaring camera, the horse gallops on, a moving target in widescreen vistas framed for maximum scenic impact. Passing through a series of miniature melodramas -- none dramatically or emotionally persuasive -- Joey draws ever closer to the killing field that lies between German and British trenches, hellish antithesis of the green, green grass of home.
About here, I'd take the kids out. Maybe the puppets used in the Broadway play eloquently expressed the horror of beautiful, dumb beasts brutally done to death, even more expendable than the millions of young men wasted in WWI. And perhaps a puppet Joey racing across no-man's-land, mad with terror, to fall tangled in barbed wire worked as shattering metaphor for the nightmare of war. But movies can be cruelly literal; it's living horseflesh we see beaten, maimed, dying in Spielberg's endless outtake from "All Quiet on the Western Front." There's no masking the smell of slaughterhouse.
But hey, in the very next scene after Joey's gut-wrenching steeplechase, enemy soldiers join forces to cut him out of the barbed wire, cracking wise and milking the moment, as hushed as church, for every drop of schmaltz -- served up on Joey's bloody back. Trust corn to take away the sting. That corn, followed by a prolonged, self-indulgent descent into bathos, turns the suffering of an animal into a cinematic lie (the exact opposite of the sanctification of the battered donkey in Robert Bresson's "Au hasard, Balthazar"). That lie feels like the callousness of a child, unable to grasp what pain and death mean to other living things.
The film's climactic family reunion, back-lit by a bloody sunset straight out of "Gone With the Wind" and predictably focused on father-son rapprochement, feels phony and contrived. Too bad Spielberg couldn't have honored Joey, the only lost "son" we've come to care about, with a homecoming as artlessly beautiful as a horse in motion.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.