THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Jeremy Irvine and "Joey," the stars of War Horse.
War Horse is like a cross between The Black Stallion, Saving Private Ryan, and Slacker. It's like the first in that it's a boy-and-his-horse tale; it's like the second in that it takes place during a world war; and it's like the third in that the narrative keeps splitting off so that we follow one character for a while, then a different character, then a different character, etc. Now, if my description sounds unappealing, please be aware that I compare War Horse to those other pictures very favorably.
The story begins on a small English farm, where Ted Narracott (Peter Mullen) ends up paying way too much for a horse at auction, much to the dismay of his wife Rose (Emily Watson). Their son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), strikes up a strong bond with the horse, whom he dubs Joey. Together, they attempt to harvest a bountiful crop so that the family will not lose their home. When that plan doesn't quite work out, Ted sells Joey to the army after World War I begins. An officer, Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch), promises to look after Joey and return him to Albert as soon as the war ends. This sets off a chain of events in which the horse winds up in the possession of various other people and groups, where he is alternately a pet and a servant; he even sees a fair amount of action on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Albert waits until he's old enough to enlist so that he can try to find his beloved horse, wherever in Europe he may be.
War Horse was directed by Steven Spielberg, and is based on Michael Morpurgo's novel, which was also translated into a stage play. There is an unapologetically old-fashioned and sentimental feel to the film version. Its visuals (i.e. lighting and cinematography) bring to mind classic films like The Quiet Man and similar pictures of that era. In terms of storytelling, there are reminders of vintage animal weepies like Lassie, Come Home or The Yearling. Is it manipulative? Sure! But not in a bad way. War Horse intentionally takes this approach. In its own way, it is as much a tribute to a filmmaking style of the past as Hugo and The Artist are.
That's not to say that it's a stunt, because it is not. The movie genuinely gets you involved in the journey of this horse, who somehow keeps surviving while a war is waged around him. Each time his “ownership” changes hands, there's suspense. You don't know if his new handlers will treat him with compassion or put him into danger. The best and most powerful sequences come in the last quarter, when Joey finds himself in the “No Man's Land” between British and German troops. Spielberg really pulls out all the stops here, staging the sequence with such visual bravado that your heart sinks from worrying about what will happen to him. I think that the extended first act really paves the way for everything else. The sincere love Albert has for Joey is well established, so when they are separated and the horse must make it on his own, we essentially take on Albert's sense of worry. In other words, we want them to find each other because the thought of that never happening is just too painful.
The performances are very good throughout, with actors in both large and small roles doing effective work. War Horse is great to look at, with some amazing moments of action spectacle. Also, the story is teeming with emotion. This is a different kind of film for Steven Spielberg. Each time Joey ends up someplace new, the tone has to shift slightly, in order to reflect his new surroundings. We know Spielberg can deliver excitement, and comedy, and drama. He can do big moments and small moments. With War Horse he has to deliver these things in succession, instead of meshing them all altogether as he did so memorably in E.T., or doing just one of them to maximum benefit, as he did with drama in Schindler's List. Sometimes War Horse plays like a succession of short films, tied together by the common element of Joey. A lot of filmmakers would have trouble pulling this off – and doing it in the aforementioned old-fashioned style, no less – but Spielberg is one of the world's best directors for a reason.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours, War Horse is maybe a tiny bit too long. And because it purposely adheres to a classic style of storytelling, there are moments where you know what will happen before it actually does. Truth be told, I wasn't sure I was going to like this film. I'm not much of a “horse person,” and while I do love animals, I sometimes find myself resistant to sentimental stories about them. War Horse worked on me, though. Once the momentum of the plot kicked in, I started to care deeply about whether Albert and Joey would be reunited. The darn thing engrossed me, and I've gotta say, I liked it a whole lot.
( 1/2 out of four)
War Horse is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence. The running time is 2 hours and 26 minutes.
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