Spielberg pays homage to a pal, Joey
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Dec 23, 2011
This movie opens Christmas Day.
Man's inhumanity to man is examined through a boy's mystical connection to a horse in "War Horse," Steven Spielberg's stirring, expertly manipulative adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel (which has already been adapted for a hit Broadway play).
As much an homage to cinema at its most old-school theatrical as it is a meditation on the absurdity of war, Spielberg's lush epic spares nothing by way of action, melodrama, historical sweep or unapologetic schmaltz.
If "War Horse" errs on the side of overkill - from composer John Williams's insistently sweet string music to Spielberg's ludicrously romantic lighting - it acquits its central mission with the strength and assurance of its phenomenal equine protagonist.
That plucky steed is named Joey, a playful thoroughbred colt admired from a distance by an English farm boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). When Albert's father, Ted (Peter Mullan), unexpectedly buys Joey in a drunken impulse, at first the boy is overjoyed, training the horse to respond to his slightest whistle. When Ted's landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis), demands funds he's due, it looks as if the family will have to sell Joey - until Albert persuades him to plow an entire rocky field, to the amazement of the onlookers who gather to witness the feat. But Joey's fate is far from secure: When World War I dawns, Ted does sell the horse, this time to the British forces, a stint that will send the doughty steed on a punishing odyssey through the war's bloodiest battlefields.
Spielberg stages these forays with breathtaking scope and detail, beginning with an astonishing set piece in which the British cavalry emerges from a wheat field, only to be met by German machine guns in an encounter that begins in glory and ends in carnage. By this time, Joey himself has made a friend, and as the two horses endure capture, escape, recapture and punishing labor carrying cannons up impossibly muddy hills, their agonizing trials take on the grievous symbolism of a secular passion play.
None of these episodes is more wrenching to witness than when Joey - in full gallop across a moonlit No Man's Land - catches up in a ball of barbed wire, an excruciating predicament that "War Horse" uses as a foil for the opposing armies to find temporary common ground.
With the exception of Thewlis's Lyons (who all but twirls his mustache when he demands the rent) and some German soldiers who are most decidedly not animal lovers, most of the humans Joey crosses paths with are caring and humane, from the sympathetic British officer (Tom Hiddleston) who promises the horse's safe return to an indulgent French grandfather (Niels Astrup) who doesn't mind having a horse or two in his farmhouse bedroom.
With its bucolic vistas, soaring music, high-keyed lighting and magical plot convergences, "War Horse" would be too grandiose and simplistically fablelike to take were it not for Spielberg's masterfully constructed set pieces and the consistently steady human performances. More crucially, Joey proves to be a thoroughly charismatic protagonist, played here by 14 horses capable of tossing their heads, crumpling their legs and nickering expressively precisely on cue (credit is also surely due to Michael Kahn's editing).
Spielberg has created an appropriate showcase for the magnificent creature that emerges, one that recalls the great movie horses of yore in a story guaranteed to pluck, grab and wring viewers' hearts, but thankfully not break them.
With its final scene bathed in bathetic rays of "Gone With the Wind"-era sun, "War Horse" promises that audiences starved for big, glossy, shamelessly sentimental movie-making won't go hungry again, at least for now.
Contains intense sequences of wartime violence.