Friday, 2 March 2012

Movie Review - 'War Horse'

There can be no doubt that Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential directors of the modern age. His films has have provided audiences with unadulterated escapist entertainment of the highest order since the mid 1970s (with Jaws) and although he may not have retained the dizzying heights he achieved during the 1980s and 1990s with movies like ET, the Indiana Joneses, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, he is still right up there with the best of them today. His films are imbued with innocence and naivety that we don't see much anymore, and perhaps that is why jaded audiences have grown tired of his typical fare. You see, Spielberg has a way of sugar-coating all his films with overly dramatic, corny and cheesy thematic elements. One of my favourite phrases to describe this is "Spielberg-porn". Some folk love it, others hate it, and I fall somewhere in the middle: I respect the man for pulling it off. With War Horse, he does so in triumphant fashion. Hit the jump for my review.

The story is sweeping, epic affair, and based on a play of all things. I would like to see that play (which is apparently terrific), because the material is so inherently cinematic that I find it difficult to imagine how they would pull it off on stage. It is set before and throughout World War I, in both rural England and war-torn Europe, and tells the story of a "miraculous kind of a horse" called Joey, and his encounters during this period. He is reared by Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), but when the war separates them, Joey finds himself on an extraordinary journey in the hands of a string of owners, each of whom falls under his spell. Included are a British cavalryman, German soldiers and a French farmer's granddaughter. Wherever he goes, Joey changes the lives of those around him. It really is an old-fashioned, sentimental story about one of the most majestic and under appreciated animals of all: the horse; told with trademark Spielbergian flair of course.

As I said above, Spielberg-porn is not everybody's cup of tea. It certainly isn't mine. I loved Schindler's List, but the pink dress was too much for me; and Saving Private Ryan was terrific, but the flash-back bookends did me in. War Horse is no different, except, there is a lot more of the Spielberg sugar-coating this time. When this happens, rather than roll your eyes, embrace the sentimentality and allow yourself to be carried away by the beauty on screen. It really is an art-form in its own right: cheese 'n syrup is to Steven Spielberg what explosions are to Michael Bay. Appreciate it for what it is.

That said, from a technical point of view the movie is incredible. Somehow, particulate matter, whether it be rain, dust, snow, ash or even mud, adds depth and texture to any shot. Countless movies have utilised this to magnificent effect, the most notable recent example being Robert Richardson's cinematography in Hugo (where he combined this fairly old technique with the modern marvel that is 3D). Spielberg's regular cinematographer is Janusz Kaminsky, and after watching War Horse I fully support that Oscar nomination he received this year. It wasn't only the particulate matter either: the film in general made use of dynamic camerawork and dramatic colouring that compliments the Spielberg-porn so perfectly. The filming of a horse is of crucial importance to illustrate the power and grace of these animals, and Kaminski did not put a foot wrong in that department.

Which brings me to the horses, the true stars of the show. How do they train them to do those things? And how did they film all of that? I grew up with horses and understand how neurotic they can be, which makes the feat so much more impressive. I wish I could have been on set during filming, because what they achieved in that respect alone is a triumph of modern, epic film making. The human characters were nothing special, and I won't even grant them a paragraph of their own. Best of the bunch were Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, but unfortunately their screen time was limited to say the least.

So yes, War Horse is contrived, sweet, cheesy, corny and sentimental. But, it is also a beautifully filmed, epic and deeply affecting movie. Spielberg knows how to use cinematic art to tug the heartstrings, and for this reason alone I would recommend that you see War Horse on the big screen.

7.5 out of 10.

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