Friday, 13 January 2012

'War Horse' review:

I fundamentally don't care whether a wide-eyed village simpleton (Jeremy Irvine) finds his 'orse. Especially not amongst the horror of the First World War. And yet here is 'War Horse': a film that time and time again asks the audience to put the fate of the titular steed, Joey, above that of the on-screen humans. Upon hearing of a man's death in battle via letter, Irvine's farm boy hero is only moved to say "he was riding Joey when he died" - fearing for the horse and instantly disregarding the man. At the height of the idiocy, a doctor is asked to leave a makeshift hospital full of dying soldiers to tend to Joey. Who bloody cares about this horse?!

Apparently everyone, for in this story Joey touches the lives of several different people, on different sides of the conflict, heralding chaos, death and misery wherever he goes. As based on the acclaimed Michael Morpurgo novel-turned-stage play, it's supposed to be the story of man's inhumanity to man seen through the eyes of an innocent animal. Yet Steven Spielberg's overwrought and overlong melodrama (as penned by the apocalypse signifying double-act of Richard Curtis and Lee Hall) makes it feel as though he's somehow the cause of all these problems rather than an observer - with more than one owner facing death or ruin before 146 laboured minutes are done.

Unless you automatically gawp and coo at the merest sight of an animal, you won't give the slightest toss what happens here. The human characters, with little screen-time to speak of, are painted as the thinnest caricatures: Benedict Cumberbatch as the shouty, plummy officer, Tom Hiddleston as a softly-spoken, well-meaning aristo, Emily Mortimer as the put upon farmer's wife, Peter Mullan as the drunken old farmer and so on. Though they all make a decent show of it - particularly the increasingly ubiquitous Cumberbatch.

Tonally it's all over the map too, shifting between the most wholesome Hovis advert never made and gritty, 'Saving Private Ryan' style battle sequences in which people crawl through mud crying and riddled with bullets. To give you some idea of what a mess it is, here are four isolated scenes listed in chronological order: some comedy business with a wacky goose; an artful shot of two children being executed; a short sequence in which a cute French girl tries to teach Joey how to jump; the battle of the Somme.

The increasingly self-parodic John Williams relentlessly underpins all this with his most cloying score to date, leading to an extraordinary disconnect between what's being depicted (usually a handsome horse running) and what we are obviously supposed to feel. The worst thing though is that Spielberg is just not built to tell a story about moral equivalence, the futility of war and the commonality of all men. He needs to create baddies and sell us goodies we can cheer for. The result is that the worst war time atrocities are shown committed by the German army whilst Joey is in their care - with a commander who smokes a cigar and might as well laugh maniacally at the end of every sentence.

A decent early action scene manages to convey both the historic potency of the cavalry charge and its obsolescence in 20th Century warfare within an expertly staged five minutes. But the film's best sequence sees a German and British soldier meet in no man's land in a mutual effort to free Joey from some barbed wire: they joke together and end the encounter wishing each other well. This is what the heart of the material is supposed to be about but it's not what Spielberg has been gearing us up for. Under his direction this is reduced to the story of a "magnificent kind of horse" and makes for the purest kind of hogwash.

'War Horse' is out now in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

1 comment:

  1. War Horse is an exceptional film. But I do believe that this ToI review has been more generous to it that many Western critics. Although not commercially unsuccessful, this film is clearly not oriented towards non-artistic film goers. But even from an artistic point of view, the war-theme depicted has nothing to offer that other classics like Saving Private Ryan or No Man's Land haven't already done. The only refreshingly new scene in the movie was the (fictional) banter between a German and an English soldier engaged in freeing Joey, when he's stuck in the cross-fire. Fictional or not, Spielberg did manage to bring forth the (animal loving) human being behind the rifle triggers and bayonets, and for that he deserves credit. I loved the movie and so high rate it high. But no harm in expecting greater things from the greatest.