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April 12, 2012

3

War Horse

by Franz Patrick


War Horse (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mr. Narracott (Peter Mullan) was supposed to buy a plow horse, but he ended up buying a thoroughbred foal. The idealistic son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), was ecstatic with this decision because he’d been admiring the young horse named Joey for quite some time, while the wife (Emily Watson) was very frustrated because they didn’t have enough funds to buy a horse, let alone one that didn’t know how to plow. The bond between Albert and Joey grew strong as they spent more time together. As World War I began, however, Joey had to be sold to maintain the family’s farm. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, “War Horse” was beautifully shot punctuated with occasionally moving moments of various characters’ interactions with the horse. From the mephitic yet refreshingly open spaces of the farm to the sordid claustrophobia and horrors in the trenches, the picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, was readily able to adopt a specific tone, whether it be through the use of color or the rate in which the camera moved, to convey emotions that specific characters, usually those who ended up caring for Joey at the time, were going through. While the separation of Albert and Joey drove the drama forward, I was most interested in realizing that each person who took care of Joey resembled a certain part of Albert. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), an English soldier, embodied pride, Gunther (David Kross), a German solider, symbolized selflessness, and Emilie (Celine Buckens), a young French girl, represented persistence and pluck. Since the screenplay gave the audience enough time to observe and invest on Albert and Joey’s relationship through playing, training, and riding, although the horse and his owner were later separated by circumstances for the majority of the film, their bond was always present. Interestingly, the middle portion was the movie’s biggest weakness. I wasn’t convinced that the execution was on the same level as the concept. While the exposition gave us plenty of time to absorb emotions and the implications behind them, the climb to the climax felt too rushed. When Joey moved from one potential new owner to another, I couldn’t help but think of several friends playing a game of catch. Whoever did not pay attention as the fast ball approached was out of the game, tantamount to the characters facing some sort of death. I wanted to learn more about Captain Nicholls’ fondness for Joey. He seemed to genuinely respect the animal, what it was capable of, and the value of Albert having to give up his beloved pet. Furthermore, Gunther’s relationship with his brother (Leonard Carow) felt superficial. I got the impression every scene was a mere set-up to something dark and tragic. While the bond between Emilie and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) slightly elevated the material, their scenes, too, felt hurried. Nevertheless, the climax was very moving. When Joey became hopelessly tangled in barbed wires in No Man’s Land, the land between the English and the Germans’ trenches, the opposing soldiers began to summon the horse and discovered an unexpected humanity despite the insanity that surrounded and threatened to destroy them. It was the scene that defined “War Horse” because it reminded us that although we may come from different backgrounds, speak in different tongues, and believe in different politics, the point was while many negative emotions may temporarily blind us, there is always a possibility of being able to co-exist, an idea strongly tied with Albert’s unyielding idealism.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Apr 16 2012

    I can’t help it, but I hated almost everything about ‘War Horse’. Like you, I enjoyed the camerawork and most of the other technical aspects, and the No Man’s Land sequence was exquisitely done. (Another part of me also enjoyed watching the beautiful Jeremy Irvine doing his best to hide what a bad actor he is. He did not have the range for this role, in my opinion.)

    I agree that the middle part of the movie was its weakest, but I found little to invest in emotionally in either the French or the German section. Here, the script and the acting were equally to blame. David Kross was just plain bad – I didn’t like him in The Reader, either – and although severly under-written, the French section was likewise dragged down by clumsy acting (the girl!) and dialogue. It sounds harsh, but at times what little enjoyment I got from the movie came from unintentionally funny lines and line readings (I’d have to see it again to give you specific examples).

    The main problem, though, was that the sum of all its weak parts made me reject the overarching story about the relationship between Joey and his beloved horse. I get that people can have a special bond with animals, but I didn’t feel that the way that Joey changed owners added much. In fact I think I would have liked it better if it’d just been a period piece about life on the farm. No, I don’t know how you make an exciting spectacle out of that, but the way War Horse ended up didn’t excite me much, either. This is not to take anything away from your experience or your review. Honest disagreement often makes me want to rewatch a movie to see if I can be convinced that my original dismissal was too quick. I’m not sure if I want to revisit ‘War Horse’. It just dragged on for so long!

    Reply
    • Apr 20 2012

      Haha! Yeah, Jeremy Irvine… His greenness showed, sadly. But to be fair, I thought his performance got better as it went on. I bought the whole thing about he being blindfolded, having to summon the horse, and having to convince everyone that Joey was his. I bought the bond that they had.

      I can’t believe you thought Kross was not very good. Maybe it’s a charisma thing that he has as an actor but I just like the way he carries himself. He looks kind of weak but there’s moments when I see a fighter in his eyes. The girl was OK. She was a bit too ebullient/sassy which I’m usually up for but her style did not match the tone of the movie. But then again maybe the enthusiasm was on purpose. Given that we don’t get much background information regarding the different caretakers of Joey, surface personality traits had to stand out in order for us to remember them.

      The farm scenes had their strengths. When Joey and Albert were plowing the field in the rain, I was so moved. It’s Spielberg’s magic, I tell you. Gets me almost every time.

      Reply
      • Apr 20 2012

        Franz,

        I certainly get the Spielberg magic thing, too, sometimes, but I feel this will have to be one of our classic ‘agree to disagree’ movie. I don’t see David Kross’s charisma, for instance. Not at all. To me, he’s like a blank slate, much like Irvine. With the French girl I think the characterization was shoddy, yes, but I was most annoyed by her crappy accent. That was truly painful.

        If the point of the “surface personality traits” of these supporting characters was that they were supposed to “resemble a certain part of Albert”, then I guess I just disagree with that artistic choice.

        Reply

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