Sunday, January 01, 2012

War Horse

I defy anyone not to be moved by certain moments in War Horse, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the same Michael Morpurgo novel that spawned an award-winning play. Spielberg hasn't forgotten how to stage a spectacle or draw emotion out of the simplest desires of a young boy, but the foundation upon which all his skills are deployed has rarely been more shaky than it is here. It's surprising to me that this material is the basis for a successful play; there's no real conflict or tension in the piece and the story doesn't stop long enough in any one place to say anything new about war. The first act of War Horse takes place in a kind of pre-World War I movie England straight out of a John Ford film. After farmer Ted Narracott (a broad Peter Mullan) overspends for a thoroughbred horse at auction, his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) must get the horse (which he names Joey) to plow the family's field or the farm will be lost to a landlord (David Thewlis) who also seems to have eyes for Ted's wife (Emily Watson, who deserves something better). The actual plowing is staged as a sort of community pageant, with a crowd of locals streaming through the fields and climbing over fences and rocks to see if Albert can convince Joey to take that first step. It's good to know that Ted's neighbors have so much free time.

War Horse doesn't say anything more profound about war than Spielberg has said in other places, but if it does have a message then I suppose it's that the machinery of war is bigger than any individual human folly or tragedy. After war breaks out and Joey is purchased by an English captain (Tom Hiddleston), the rest of the movie is an account of Joey's endurance of numerous humans' attempts to get him killed. Joey's only respite comes at the French cottage of a kindly grandfather (Niels Arestrup, who was terrific in this) and his granddaughter Emilie (Celine Buckens), where it appears for a time that Joey has found the owner he deserves. Arestrup gets a monologue about bravery that's featured prominently in the trailers for War Horse; the speech is actually about pigeons used on the battlefield and it seems to suggest that bravery amounts to holding one's breath and leaping into the fray. Given the behavior we see in the rest of War Horse this speech could be ironic, but I don't think Spielberg has it in him to critique war that way. It's disappointing to see Spielberg running in place with War Horse, and his forthcoming Lincoln biopic (which at least has Tony Kushner on board as a writer) will really need more nuance. I suspect Spielberg may have taken on material here that was unworthy of him, but whatever the case War Horse winds up being about much less than it should be.

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