Thursday, 2 February 2012

War Horse

Academy Award Nominations: 6
  • Best Picture
  • Best Art Direction (Production Design: Rick Carter, Set Decoration: Lee Sandales)
  • Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski)
  • Best Original Score (John Williams)
  • Best Sound Editing (Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom)
  • Best Sound Mixing (Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart Wilson)

In the early 1910’s, a farmer needing a plough horse instead buys a young colt his son Albert has followed since birth, and is soon named Joey. Albert soon trains the young horse to plough the field against all the odds. However, after the crops fail, Albert’s father has no choice but to sell Joey to a young Captain heading out to war in order to lead cavalry charges. Joey is trained by the army to be a war horse, and after the British cavalry charge is proven futile against modern machine guns, Joey is captured by the Germans and used to haul heavy artillery. However, his adventures don’t end, as one way or another, this horse is determined to return home...

I should start by saying this: I have not read the famous children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo written in 1982, nor have I seen the award-winning stage adaptation which has been running since 2007. I’ve heard many things about both of these versions of War Horse, and now there’s a third version: The big budget Hollywood film version directed by everyone’s favourite family film maker Steven Spielberg. Therefore, I will not be using this review to compare and contrast versions and adaptations; I will be using this review to review the film as a standalone text. Therefore, having watched War Horse with no prior knowledge of the plot and only general word-of-mouth surrounding the book and play, I can safely say this: Either War Horse is incredibly overhyped, or the film just isn’t that good.

Here’s the thing: I was told by various people that this film, although in particular the play, was highly emotional in certain parts. I was preparing to be an emotional wreck given the sources of said information. Yet watching it, I didn’t quite get those moments, they didn’t connect for me. Now this isn’t me being macho and pretending I didn’t cry when I actually did, I honestly didn’t. I felt the appropriate emotions in the emotional places of the film, but there was no blubbering or bawling. Maybe it’s because I’m not a big crier. Maybe it’s because I’m not a big fan of horses (I hate them after one of those traumatic childhood experiences). Maybe though, and here’s the big’un, the way the scenes and plot points were played out in this film had less emotional effect than they perhaps might have done in the stage adaptation. In my opinion, the points that are played out for major audience reactions are just so blatent and obvious in this, you can see them coming a mile off and they didn’t live up to expectations at all. I really expected more from the man who gave the world E.T.

That’s right, Steven Spielberg was directing here, and it’s no surprise either; the material seem ripe fodder for one of his family-orientated films with high emotions and a winning main character relationship running through the core. Don’t get me wrong, it’s shot beautifully, and the plot rattles along at a steady pace, especially in the second two acts. It just seems as if he wasn’t able to capture the same kind of emotion he was able to get in E.T. or Schindler’s List, which is a shame, Other than that, War Horse has the feeling of a proper family grandiose epic from the 80’s, something along the lines of E.T. or The Goonies, or even Super 8, which was in itself an homage to the Spielberg-ian family films of the 80’s. There’s plenty of interesting characters to drive the plot forward, and plenty of good performances to match.

From the off, the entire Narracott family are great on screen. Young Albert, played by Jeremy Irvine, is solid as the boy quickly becoming a man due to family life and war, and the relationship with his horse feels real. Parents Ted and Rose, played by Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, are also convincing as the struggling farmers, dealing with their own personal problems as well as trying to pay rent and keep their livelihoods. As the film progresses, Tom Hiddleston puts in another good performance as Captain Nicholls to match his recent good performances in Thor and Midnight in Paris (more on that soon). A pair of stand outs though, however brief their role may be, are Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens as the French grandfather and granddaughter living on a farm, trying to avoid the war and happen to chance upon Joey after a series of events. Their relationship is genuine and probably one of the brighter spots in the film. The best actor though is the horse, or rather the various horses who played Joey. They’ve clearly all been well trained, and use head and eye movements to express emotion in place of dialogue. That’s all fine and well, but when everybody on screen is out-acted by a horse, even if the film is focused on the horse, there’s a problem.

Overall, War Horse is an odd film. It looks good, the premise is nicely played out and the acting is OK. It just seems to miss its marks in the major emotional moments, which is exactly where it needs to pick up and hit home. Obviously, this is just my opinion, other people I’m sure will connect with this film more deeply and will leave the cinema blubbing uncontrollably, but it just didn’t do it for me. It’s also the sheer amount of emotional moments in this film which has annoyed me, the film is full of them and eventually I found it tiresome, so when the big finale came around, not only did I know what was coming, but I didn’t care as much as I might have done.  Maybe I should watch the stage show, maybe I made a mistake in watching this first. But then, if the stage version is as good as people say it is, would I not be even more disappointed with this? I guess War Horse just isn’t for me, I’m afraid.

Rating: ***

War Horse was released on 13th January 2012 and is still being shown in cinemas.

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