War Horse is about a horse with a knack for getting free of horrible situations and who is blessed with remarkable strength. This is partly why the movie is good, but is also why the movie lacks somewhat in emotional impact.
Here’s a preview:
Released December 25, 2011
Written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the book by Michael Morpurgo
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Emily Watson, Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, and Eddie Marsan
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When farmer Ted Narracot (Mullan) gives in to pride and outbids his wealthy landlord for a sleek thoroughbred instead of a sturdy plow horse, his wife (Watson) is upset and his son, Albert, is over the moon excited. Albert (Irvine) names the horse Joey and trains the horse, finally getting Joey to help him plow an unplowable field. Despite, Albert and Joey’s efforts, however, the harvest of turnips is ruined and Ted ends up selling the horse to a cavalry officer who is shipping off to fight the Germans in Europe. That’s right, this is World War I.
The cavalry officer, Captain Nicholls (Hiddleston) dotes on the horse and follows his commander (Cumberbatch) into a raid on a German camp, but it turns out the camp is very well defended and the horse ends up in German hands. Not long after, Joey, with a big black horse as a friend, winds up being found by a young Belgian or Dutch girl named Emilie (Buckens) and she and her grandfather (Arestrup) keep the horses until they are taken again by Germans. Now Joey and his friend must haul artillery. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the black horse dies of exhaustion.
That’s right, it’s a black horse that dies. The black one always dies to show the seriousness of the situation.
Joey ends up getting away from the German artillery corps and takes off through a no-man’s land between German and British lines. This is the best scene in the movie.
Meanwhile, Albert, Joey’s first owner enlisted in the army and is now in the infantry on the front lines. You can see where this goes from here.
War Horse is a legitimately sweeping epic. The narrative sweeps across Europe, through countless lives, and comes, as all epics should, full circle, with a single character overcoming odds to find a certain type of nirvana or elevation. Furthermore, the setting of the tale is grand: War-torn Europe. The story doesn’t blink at depicting the savagery of war, nor does it balk at using extra sugar at the sweet moments.
Another thing War Horse doesn’t do is flow very naturally or keep its pace steady. It also is not as effective as it wanted to be, although there are excellent moments, particularly the interactions between Emilie and her grandfather and the dynamics between the Narracot family members. The exchange between the Brit and the German on the battlefield as they free the horse is also excellent. The character of Gunther was a throwaway and a deliberately heavy-handed attempt at adding ‘heart’ to the movie.
But the horse naturally had heart and a story of a boy who is willing to do anything for his best friend, Joey the horse, already has heart, so it’s silly to add artificial heart in the form of a wasted character and obvious silhouette shots.
You will like War Horse. You will probably come out of the film wondering why you didn’t love it. I’ll tell you why: it’s trying a little too hard and the filmmakers know what works and put EVERYTHING in the movie, thus overdoing it a little.
One of the best aspects of War Horse is the lovely set design. Another is the cinematography. There are some truly magnificent shots of different parts of Europe, grounding the story solidly in space and time.
At least War Horse doesn’t blink at the harshness of war. All in all, it’s a perfectly enjoyable, if overlong, film that doesn’t quite satisfy but engages and is filled with very nice performances. Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls is particularly excellent.
Content warnings: Plenty of violence, but none of it graphic at all.
Writing: 4 Acting: 5 Overall: 4.5
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