War Horse (2011)

26 January 2012

As noted here last week, War Horse is an amiable enough film, for which director Steven Spielberg and writers Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, following the success of a 2007 stage production, adapt Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel into a balanced and digestible blend of warming schmaltz and frontline horror. Its ultimate appeal might be determined by the viewer's love for anything equestrian - my own interests do not transcend this fictional account - but the film boasts some stunning scenes as well as a credits list comprising a who's who of the familiar and rising stars of British cinema.

Set against the backdrop of the first world war, the film follows Devon lad Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) as he attempts to train as a plough horse the thoroughbred his father Ted (Peter Mullan) stubbornly bought in an auction, much to the bewilderment of wife Rose (Emily Watson). The first act predictably but solidly establishes the odds of Albert's task and rubs in a gloating landlord (David Thewlis) for good measure, so that mounted close-ups of a colter somehow cutting through the rocks embedded in the field on which the Narracotts wish to plant turnips become immediately gratifying... before the outbreak of war is declared and Albert's horse - Joey - is bought up by a cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) to serve country and cause.

Hereafter, the film becomes wildly episodic, as it follows Joey from owner to adopting owner, the creature doubling as a kind of Gumpian canvas through whom we see this character and that in the broadly shaped unfolding history: two young German officers, who see in the horse a well-trained obedience; a young French girl who lives in the country with her grandfather (Niels Arestrup); another German officer (Nicolas Bro), and so on.

Having opened with the horse's birth, watched on by an Albert unaware of his future friendship - yes, we'll call it that - with the animal, the film unashamedly endorses from its outset a theme resembling destiny or fate, espousing courage, loyalty and the undying bond of trust through unthinkable hardship. Said hardship - namely, the deadly war itself - is inevitably made secondary, and the plodding way in which Joey repeatedly changes hands, only to humble whomever inherits him, might seem unforgiveably inconsequential to anyone who doesn't think the life of a single horse transcends a human death toll in the millions.

It's tempting to be derisive. But somewhere along the way, we might be forgiven for forgetting the horse is there, as gunshells and bullets shatter limbs and lives as young British lads (and guess who's among them! Albert no less!) are sent over the top into the cutting, unfathomably wrenching chaos of No Man's Land. Yes, the film reminds us at this point, there's a war going on after all, and we're bullied into putting Joey at the backs of our minds for a brilliant sequence - less spectacular than anything in Saving Private Ryan but brutal all the same - that culminates in a sleight of hand take in which the horse leaps and bounds over and through trenches and the battlefield.

With time condensed and everything looking a bit glum, a quieter aftermath follows, in which Toby Kebbell (of Dead Man's Shoes) puts on a Geordie accent in a winning cameo, as a soldier who ventures over the top, white flag in hand, to free a downed, wounded Joey from a web of barbed wire. Kebbell's soldier is assisted by a German counterpart, who provides the bolt cutters with which they negotiate the horse free, whilst conversing about shared conditions in a well-handled scene that restores some human element.

Beautifully shot and well-paced (not to mention well-scored - it's John Williams's best score in years), the film bookends its hellish scenario with a stuttered triumphalism, presenting Albert, its barely remembered leading human, with firstly the challenge of proving Joey is the horse he thinks it is temporarily without the aid of sight, and secondly an auction that recalls the film's first, the upshot of which is a would-be downer countered by an understanding old face for whom we're made to feel little. Its patient, final scene, consisting of a permeating red backdrop, recalls the finer Hollywood melodramas of old, something that makes it a suitable competitor in a particularly nostalgic Best Picture Oscar race, alongside The Artist and Hugo.