Friday, 20 January 2012

WAR HORSE (2011) - 4 STARS

"We will be together again"


Having only directed one film in the past six years, the legendary Steven Spielberg has enjoyed another successful comeback year with the release of two films which both struck cords with me in terms of creative story-telling and fluent action. Ironically though, War Horse like The Adventures of Tin Tin is all about adventure of the grandest proportions and when it comes to Spielberg you know you're in for a treat in his homage to John Ford classics. But while the animated hit was filled with action and wittiness, War Horse delivers on an epic and majestic scale with a story of friendship and courage between a boy and his horse that later takes us to the horrors of a great war which threatened to tarnish humanity forever. Sentimental it is, but that's what you get when you have the director of E.T, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan on board....
 Set in the English countryside, farmer Ted Naracott (Mullan) brings home a young horse, that he won at an auction to try and help grow crops at his farm so he can pay a debt off to landlord Lyon (Thewlis). His son Albert (Irvine) becomes fascinated by the horse and names it Joey and decides to train him to use the farming equipment in order to plant seeds which after much hard work, manages to succeed. But the brief, yet strong bond between the two ends abruptly when the arrival of World War One leads to Ted selling Joey to the Calvary much to Albert's dismay but despite Calvary Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) guaranteeing the horse's safety, Albert vows to be reunited with his horse one way or another. Over the course of the war, the story takes Joey on an incredible journey as he finds himself in the hands of various people who become gracious of his majesty including a pair of German deserters and a sickly French girl named Emile (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Neils Aerstrup) before he faces the traumatic events of the trenches in No Man's Land. Unbeknownst to him though, Albert is there too, fighting alongside his comrades and seeking to be reunited with his companion....

Adapted admirably from the acclaimed play that stamped a mark at the West End and Broadway, Spielberg manages to balance out the heartfelt emotion shown throughout the story as see the war through Joey's eyes with his relationship with Albert touching to watch and leaving you dismayed the moment we see the separation between the pair before the war sequences appear. The audience is then taken on a journey involving the horse, through its frequently changing owners, most of them who treat it with dedicated respect like Captain Nicholls and Emile and her grandfather. The horse somehow has the power to affect the relationships between humans which is displayed by a heartfelt scene towards the end during No Man's Land when a British and German soldier join forces to free Joey from barbed wire. Like he did with Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg shows no mercy to his audiences with the way he depicts war on the big screen, and while the blood and gore of that film is set aside here, you still get the harrowing reality of what war must have been like for many during that time. Yes the likes of All Quiet on the Western Front and Blackadder have portrayed WWI fine on screen, but never has it looked more epic and ferocious as Spielberg presents it here with the heroism from the British side quickly dispelled particularly in a key scene where Nicholls and his Calvary are overpowered by German machine gun fire. As a spectacle, Spielberg goes a long way to achieve his nod to old Hollywood and shows that here with the production design and most importantly his stunning cinematography gloriously shot by Janusz Kaminski and used magnificently whether it be its tinted imagery of the English countryside or the brutality of the war and No Man's Land. And as you'd expect, John Williams collaborates with Spielberg again to give a triumphant score that brings out the emotion within you during the film's sentimental moments from a talent on top of his game even as he reaches the age of 80. Lastly the cast all have their few moments to stand out as the film is mostly dominated by the horse. Irvine in his first major film stands his ground when it comes to the scenes with him and Joey sharing a tight-knit bond on screen that becomes believable to audiences through the emotion in his eyes. Mullan and Watson both give authoritative experience as Albert's parents, both knowing how treasured the horse is to their son but having to make the painful sacrifice in order to ensure their wellbeing. The rest of the cast are mostly underused though Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, Arestrup and Toby Kebbell prove to be the highlights out of the large ensemble.

Nowadays Spielberg does tend to have flaws in his films and not since 'Ryan' has he made a true classic with the slight exception of 'Munich' which was completely the opposite of any of his lighter work. The film starts slowly and takes time to pick up as it handles the understanding between Albert and Joey plus the farm's predicament and when the two are separated, you have to wait till the final half hour for Albert to appear again during the trenches segment, as the film chooses to focus on Joey's impact on other characters. Also after getting the fluency right with Schindler's List, he doesn't seem to do as well here despite an all European cast where French and German soldiers speak English with an English accent and this can confuse audiences over the dialect while the Devon accents are a little sloppy too. And while youngster Buckens has a nice role in the film, she sounds like a character from 'Allo Allo which isn't her fault but it makes her character come across as stereotypical like it was meant to be in the British sitcom.

VERDICT: It may not be his best effort, but Spielberg trots along with another en-powering (if slightly flawed) film that showcases World War One to modern audiences and will leave most of them emotional, as the relationship between man and animal is embraced in this tale of dedication and survival.


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