Wednesday, December 21, 2011

New Release Review: War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

War Horse is scheduled to hit Australian cinemas on Boxing Day. It is distributed through Disney.

Steven Spielberg’s second Boxing Day release is the highly anticipated adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel, War Horse. Set before and during World War I, the story follows the extraordinary odyssey of Joey, a one-of-a-kind horse who finds himself alone in No Man’s Land having served both the British and the German armies and impacted the lives of a number of individuals after being separated from his young owner, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). 

Having been irresponsibly purchased by Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) to plough their crop field, he becomes a local sensation, but is sold off to aid the British Army, when the Narracott's are unable to afford to keep their land. From there his paths cross with a British soldier (Tom Hiddleston), two young German brothers and a French girl and her grandfather, before finding himself used as a slave horse in the German encampment. Albert joins the British Army in the hopes of seeing his best friend one more time, and the pair are unexpectedly re-united following the assault on No Man's Land.

War Horse was first published in the United Kingdom in 1982. In 2007, Morpurgo’s novel was transformed into an award-winning stage adaptation, and one that has been met with immense praise and success around the world. This is why it was very unfortunate to experience such an ineffective film version, and despite already gathering accolades, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture: Drama, this is a film with plenty of glaring faults.

The cinematography from longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski is perhaps the film’s most impressive trait, painting a striking canvas for the film to unfold on. But there is a texture to the lighting and visuals that feel otherworldly and artificial, and even the exterior scenes feel very staged. There are an abundance of Spielberg tropes – the famous dolly shot into the awe-stricken or bewildered faces of the characters - but on the whole the photography is clean and simple. Easily the best work comes in the second half – and if I hadn’t seen a similar No Man’s Land battle sequence filmed decades prior (in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory) I might have been even more blown away by Kamiski’s work here. Still, it remains one of the film’s best sequences, and one of the few occasions where War Horse actually feels distinctly cinematic.

War Horse seems to be most influenced by the stage play, with the film’s episodic structure making this far more evident than it should have been. Joey is the centre of the story, but the human characters come and go around him (like they are entering and exiting a stage) and there is very little opportunity given for the audience to invest in an emotional connection to them. The horses personified mannerisms and emotions are quite extraordinary, but none of the performances from the predominantly British ensemble are particularly strong. A series of recognizable faces pop up briefly and then just as quickly disappear.

Jeremy Irvine did the best he could in one of his first film roles, but he is surrounded by performances that are campy (Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Kross), overly theatrical (Peter Mullan, David Thewlis and Niels Arestrup), and just plain bad (Emily Watson). The appearance of actors like Eddie Marsan and Liam Cunningham near the conclusion also felt inconsequential. Each of the antagonists seemed to exist solely for the purposes of necessity, and though it was hard enough to connect with the human characters that befriended Joey, it was even harder overlooking the lazy stereotypes of the antagonists. The most notable and were Thewlis’ tyrannical landlord (ridiculous), Cumberbatch’s smarmy and pointlessly competitive British General and the heartless German Officer.

Another big gripe is the musical score. Here, John Williams is responsible for one of the most overblown and intrusive scores in recent cinema. While it features some beautiful compositions, it’s a relentless assault and is far too prevalent – Did it ever cease in the first act? It is instrumental in influencing exactly how a viewer should feel in some of the emotional scenes. The problem is, on many occasions, my personally reaction to the scene did not in any way match Williams’ distracting and overwhelming score.

Though I’d say it’s more a family film than a sophisticated adult drama, the shots of the dead corpses of horses, and the comprehensively violent battle sequences (let alone Joey running through several barbed-wire fences) make me question the film’s suitability for young viewers. On the other hand, it is too schmaltzy and corny for adults. The melodrama plays out like a bad soap, the jokes fall flat and if it weren’t for some poignant moments between the horses, the film isn’t as affecting as intended. There was several times when I realized after-the-fact that I was supposed to have laughed.

Though the ordeals of the special horse are horrific and the battle sequences harrowing – my heart caught in my throat in the scene where Joey is assigned to pull a German tank up a hill, and it is upsetting to see Joey trapped and alone in No Man’s Land. Despite this, none of the stories feel remotely grounded in reality. Yes, it is a work of fiction, but when Albert and his friend from his village back home are discussing Joey and a mutual female friend, minutes before charging through No Man’s Land, many viewers will roll their eyes. The story relies on conveniences, and mechanical set ups. Nothing exists without influencing where the story progresses next, and for such an extraordinary adventure – it all just feels far too calculated.

It is hard to get emotionally invested because the progressions of events don’t feel like they have developed naturally, but that the disconnected stories have been stitched together. The horse is beautiful, and no doubt special, but I never felt it was justified that every character that encountered him immediately proclaimed him to be the most magnificent horse they have met, considering that his prior journeys are unknown. Each of the stories exists to set up the teary finale. The fact that Joey isn’t comfortable jumping over fences explains why he runs through the barbed wire, while the time spent with Niels Astrup’s character justifies Joey being torn between him and Albert.

On that note, there will be many tears spent at the conclusion - and I do understand why this will be the case. But it didn’t work for me. I also don’t think it is worthy of any of the accolades that have long been predicted. War Horse is overly sentimental, tug-on-the-heartstrings Oscar bait and pretty uninvolving. It ‘finally’ hit its stride in the third act by becoming a war epic, which feels opposed to what the film sets out to be (a Babe-like family melodrama?). It’s hard to recommend this film – because I don’t know whom this film is going to work for. Children will find it far too long and distressing; while adults (perhaps with the exception of elderly ladies escorting their grandchildren) will find it laborious. This feels like the work of a man past his prime (having said that, TinTin was fun) and a third-string option for families these holidays.

Note: An acquaintance of mine, a theatre buff, recommends that audiences wait for the far superior stage version of the story to hit Australia in the new year. I trust him.

My Rating: ★★1/2 (C-)


  1. Thank you for helping me decide whether to consider seeing this or not. I have a lot of issues with Spielberg these days. While I don't have problem with old-school filmmakers making films if they still have something to say or to prove that they have another one in them.

    Spielberg is in that list of filmmakers who I think should just retire. I don't think he has anything to prove these days. His films lately fall short and they seem to don't meet expectations. What does he aim for, awards and big box office numbers? That doesn't really prove anything.

    Guys like Scorsese, Malick, Polanski, and Allen have recently made movies that made us prove that they still have it and they're not done. They can still pull out something that we don't expect. Can Spielberg do that nowadays? Or is he just going to accept the fact that he's now become nothing more than a cinematic dinosaur?

  2. :'( I have a feeling that I'm going to be the only person who likes it, especially considering my particular closeness to the story (I lost my horse, and recently she moved further away, and I would literally give anything in this world to have her back). The book is pretty good, particularly because it is told from the horse's point of view (I was literally crying in the first chapter, but again, that's just because I miss my horse so much). Anyway, I still love Steven Spielberg to bits, and it looks like just my kind of movie. I get upset when people say a word against Spielberg, because he seems to cop a lot of crap for some reason - he's awesome, to me.

  3. I haven't seen it yet, but was surprised when it garnered a Golden Globe nomination - it could probably have just been left off altogether from what you say here!
    My number one priority on Boxing Day will be Tintin (of course, haha), but I might go see this in the New Year with my friend...who loves horses....

  4. I wasn't expecting too much from War Horse, especially after I read the synopsis and saw the trailer, so I am not surprised you didn't like it. I will skip this one in theatres, which is ok by me, since there are a lot more movies that I would rather spend my money one! Thanks Andy, great review, as always!

  5. @ Steven - I don't think Spielberg has anything to prove, but he is involved in a lot of projects; mostly as producer. This is far from Spielberg's best work, and though it evokes a style typical of classic cinema, I don't think it is a successful adaptation of what I have been told is a fantastic play.

    @ Stevee - You're certainly not going to be the only person. It has received some strong reviews. You will be moved by the horse's tale (because of your experience with your horse and your love for them) but I struggled to get involved in the corny and episodic tale. I love a lot of Spielberg films - but this isn't close to his best work, in my opinion.

    @ Ruth - I was surprised too. After seeing it I completely dismissed it from contention. Tintin is a better option, if you have to choose just one.

    @ Aziza - Yeah, the trailer isn't flattering. There are plenty of other films out that are significantly more engaging. Thanks for reading!

  6. Maybe it's just me but I thought all films are meant to be manipulative one way or another. The whole point of movies are to entertain by making you feel some kind of emotion, be it horror, joy, or sadness. To fault a film for intentionally try to make you feel something is rather stupid.

  7. Nice review Andy. I too noticed the score, which I wouldn't have minded except that it felt like it jumped too quickly to the emotional music (not enough transitions). I can definitely see how the stage version might be better, given the puppetry and all. In terms of Oscar accolades, though, I think that this is pretty much what they go for. Right down the middle and nothing too groundbreaking. I think they'll eat it up.