"A miraculous kind of 'orse." Jeremy Irvine stars in War Horse (2011)...
The blogosphere is alive with the sound of captiousness, and the duck-shooting bandwagon have turned their fire toward Hollywood's great sentimentalist, Steven Spielberg. From what I can gather it sounds like most reviewers would have preferred War Horse, the story of naive farmhand Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his equine pal Joey (erm... horses), if it had been directed by the great Bavarian nihilist Werner Herzog. Imagine it. From the Narracott farm Joey would have become disenchanted by man's futile, wreckless ambitions to overthrow each other, retreated into poetic reverie, traveled France by rickety rowboat in search of existential fulfillment and then been left to decompose upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness. Kinski would have played the horse, naturally.
For anyone decrying the emotional authenticity of War Horse, first consider the story of Cher Ami, a carrier pidgeon who on October 3rd, 1918, saved the lives of a 600-man battalion pinned down behind enemy lines. This bird, carrying the message of their location and a plea for rescue, was their only hope, and so off it soared into skies of smog and lead hail. He was shot down by German troops twice, but still managed to reach the command post with a bullet lodged in his breast, clipped feet and a missing eye. The message was intact, and Cher Ami was declared a hero. The final act of Spielberg's handsomely mounted epic may feel cloying to some, but I ask you this: if a pidgeon can muster enough courage to save the lives of hundreds of stranded soldiers, and against such overpowering odds, why can't an ol' Devon boy be reunited with his steed? It's not as if Spielberg has deceived us - the methods of his emotional string pulling are laid bare in the opening credits, with his camera sweeping over impossibly beautiful rural scenery and John Williams' score crescendoing into a heart-stirring chorus. It's a bit like going into a Hitchcock film and complaining when the murder plot kicks in.
Adapted from Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel, also translated into a 2007 stage play, War Horse is in fact Spielberg's homage to the grandest tradition of Hollywood filmmaking, nodding most notably toward John Ford, Victor Fleming and David Lean. It's an unashamedly romantic film, shot on 35mm and coloured like a pastel painting (which isn't to suggest that its battle scenes don't pack heft; they're devastating). The absence of superimposed landscapes, sickly digital luster and CGI set-pieces make for a refreshingly old-fashioned moviegoing experience, and one which allows for the moment where Emily Watson's knitting dissolves into a shot of the freshly ploughed Narracott field. Devon has rarely looked so beautiful as here, boasting greens so ripe you could bite into them and an orange sunset which, reflected in the county's winding lakes, is delicate enough to swim in. Janusz Kaminski's lighting is impeccable, and I wouldn't be surprised if he steals out the Oscar from under Emmanuel Lubezki's (Tree Of Life) nose at this year's ceremony.
It's true that the moral lines of Spielberg's films are often too black and white, and David Thewlis' clammy, tweed-cut landlord is perhaps too theatrical a villain for even the grandiose War Horse, but the actor acquits himself well nonetheless. In fact, the sterling cast (mostly British) all get their moment to shine. During the film's Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966) stages, where Joey moves from hand to hand and changes the lives of all that he meets, we are treated to great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, David Kross, Niels Arestrup and Toby Kebbell. Kebbell shares a fantastic scene with Hinnerk Schönemann, playing soldiers from opposing trenches who briefly cease-fire to save Joey, ensnared by barbed wire in the middle of no man's land. It is during this scene that Spielberg exposes the true waste of war - these men have much in common, both appearing amicable and good-hearted, and their conversation is awkwardly human. I wonder if they made it home, but consider that they probably didn't.
War Horse doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of war, but neither is it ashamed to find a flicker of light in the dark. WWI was as dirty and barbaric a war as any in history, and that fact isn't lost for Spielberg's decision to celebrate the human spirit it endeavored to dissolve. The much-discussed cavalry charge might not focus on bloodshed or mutilation, but the camera's slow panning out to reveal dozens of corpses - horse and human alike - littered across the battlefield is truly haunting. In one scene the director frames the execution of two teenage deserters from behind the passing sail of a windmill, but we still understand the mercilessness with which this act was undertaken. The Somme scenes also carry an authentic bleakness, even if we all know they won't claim the life of our protagonists. Closing over a bloodied tangerine sky, War Horse strikes exactly the right emotional note, as Williams' gorgeous suite - often recalling Pink Floyd's When The Tigers Broke Free - plays over Albert's return home. The haters will hate, and blog about it they shall, but for me this is Spielberg's finest film in years. Oh, and he nails the bothersome goose gag twice.
War Horse is in cinemas now.