Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse: A truly incredible journey

War Horse (2011) • View trailer
Five stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense war violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.30.11

The first act is breathtaking.

The second act is grim, horrifying and heartbreaking.

The third act is transcendent.
Albert (Jeremy Irvine, center) defiantly holds onto his horse, after realizing that
his father (Peter Mullan, right) has just sold the animal to Capt. Nichols (Tom
Hiddleston, far left). The "Great War" has begun, and horses are needed at the
front; Albert knows what this likely means for his beloved, four-legged friend.

Once again demonstrating a facility for extracting compelling, first-person narratives from the faceless, senseless morass of war, director Stephen Spielberg has delivered another masterpiece on par with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

The twist, this time, is that the “person” is a horse.

War Horse — sensitively adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, from the celebrated novel by Michael Morpurgo (with additional material from Nick Stafford’s inventive stage play) — is alternately exhilarating and shattering. The film is riveting from the first frame, the plot points — major and minor — delivered with such skill and imagination that one wonders how this saga could have been anything but a visual experience. (A book? Really?)

Spielberg, acutely aware of the emotions to be stirred at any given moment, orchestrates this World War I saga with a brilliant blend of subtle suggestion and harsh, jarring brutality. The juxtaposition is both unsettling and ferociously clever; time and again, we’re set up for what seems a welcome lull in the dramatic intensity, only to be caught off-guard as grim events once again overtake apparent tranquility.

As one character bitterly reflects, along the way, war takes everything from everybody.

But that’s getting ahead of things. War Horse actually opens gently, majestically, in the dappled English countryside of Devon. Young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) watches as a hunter colt is born in a neighboring farmer’s field; the boy remains close, as time passes and the animal matures into a regal thoroughbred with four white socks and a white diamond on its forehead.

Come auction day, Albert’s father, Ted (Peter Mullan), attends with the intention of purchasing a strapping plow horse. But something about the skittish, four-legged youngster touches a chord; goaded into a foolish winning bid, Ted returns home with this wholly impractical “farm” animal, much to the vexation of his wife, Rosie (Emily Watson) ... and the delight of their son.

But harsh reality merely emphasizes the folly of Ted’s purchase. Having spent what should have been the rent money, Ted gambles his entire farm on the ludicrous promise that this new horse — which Albert has named Joey — can successfully plow an impossible, stone-laden lower field, so that a crop can be planted and brought to market.

The tension here is palpable, the set-up sufficient as a story all its own. Watson’s Rosie is flinty, exasperated but ultimately resigned: practical where Ted is impulsive, but resolutely loyal nonetheless. She adores both her stubborn, prideful husband and the son who is rapidly maturing into an adult with his father’s best qualities. Watson’s silent expressions speak volumes, the set of her mouth — and fire in her eyes — a pathway to her soul.

And she gets plenty of emotional weight out of every hard-bitten syllable that emerges from her lips.

Ted, a shattered man — both physically and in spirit — is a harder read; Mullen conveys this farmer’s demons with desperate, agonized gazes. Once upon a time, Ted stood tall and feared nothing; now, only remnants of that former invincibility linger, like the shabby clothing that couldn’t possibly keep him warm during a biting British winter.

Boy and horse bond, during these weeks and months. Joey, it transpires, is a social animal; he craves company. And not just any company, but the intimacy of the close contact he had with his mother, back in that other field.

More or less a century into the art of cinema, we’ve seen countless depictions of spirited horses gentled down in a paddock, whether ringed by wooden fences or rock walls. Spielberg embraces the challenge of this cliché and makes the sequence fresh and vibrant; much of the emotional power comes not just from Irvine’s wholesome, fresh-faced earnestness, but also the expressive heft somehow obtained from the horse.

(This horse, and the wire-haired fox terrier in The Artist. Really, can’t we have an Academy Award category for animals?)

Historic events overtake rural struggles; England plunges into war with Germany. Joey is sold to a compassionate young captain (Tom Hiddleston) who promises, if possible, to return the horse to Albert; the boy is too young to enlist himself. Impulsively, Albert ties a red scarf — a remnant from his father’s earlier service in the Boer War — to Joey’s saddle. A good luck charm, the boy hopes.

And thus begins Joey’s labyrinthine journey through joy and sorrow, hardship and wonder, as the unpredictable chaos of war separates him from various two-legged companions. He will touch lives on both sides of the front — and in between — with his innocence, purity of motive and unconditional devotion to a succession of human friends.

Morpurgo’s story is Black Beauty writ against the tapestry of battlefield conflict: a saga we experience through the horse’s trusting eyes.

There are no villains here. As Joey’s capricious fate shifts the action from one side to the other, the horse is embraced — and respected — just as warmly by young German soldiers who also recognize the animal’s courage and noble intelligence. Even when forced into horrific labor, Joey’s plight results not from malice or brute sadism, but from lamentable battlefield necessity.

That makes it worse, of course. Idealistic, frightened young men are no different on either side of the conflict, as this story constantly reminds us.

Although driven by the core narrative that follows Joey’s wartime journey, the presentation is episodic, Hall and Curtis’ script broken into distinct chapters. Each allows the writers to underscore an often ironic moral point, which Spielberg unerringly drives home: the naïve folly of smiling young men signing up for the “grand adventure” of war; the irrationally outdated cavalry charge that matches swords against first-gen Maxim machine guns; the ghastly clarion call of “Over the top, boys!” as countless terrified soldiers become lacerated meat hanging from the barbed wire of no man’s land in France’s Somme.

I’d not have thought it possible, but Spielberg genuinely one-ups the desperate, shattering horror of the trench warfare scenes from 1981’s Gallipoli.

But all is not bleakness and despair. At one point, Joey and his new equine friend, a towering black steed named Topthorn, find temporary shelter and peace at a French countryside farm run by an aging jam maker (Niels Arestrup), sole guardian of his frail but spirited granddaughter, Emilie (the radiant Celine Buckens).

Later, events build to an emotional climax that precipitates a poetic reminder of the actual 1914 holiday truce known as the “Christmas miracle.”

Spielberg has an unerring sense of balance: of when to pull back and let our imaginations fill in the details, and when to thrust us into stark, full-blown intensity. He has Hitchcock’s eye for both suggestion and the poetic use of scenic elements: the huge, slowly moving blades of a farm windmill that obscure a tragic act in the field below; or the juxtaposition of charging horses seen before and after they pass a phalanx of brutal gunfire.

He also manages the seemingly impossible, and extracts genuine humor at unlikely moments.

The supporting cast is uniformly superb, down to even briefly glimpsed roles: Benedict Cumberbatch, recently seen in the BBC’s modern re-boot of Sherlock Holmes, as the reckless Major Stewart; David Kross (The Reader), as a German soldier who feels responsible for his underage brother; David Thewlis, as the Narracott family’s smarmy landlord; Robert Emms, who starred in the London stage version of War Horse, as the landlord’s son; and many others.

Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is breathtaking, whether in the magnificent Devon countryside or the stunningly realized Somme trenches. Rick Carter’s production design is meticulous to the last detail, and John Williams delivers another of his memorably poignant symphonic scores.

Mostly, though, you’ll be haunted by Joey’s eyes, frequently caught in close-up: angelic, guileless, noble and unquestioningly devoted. As oft has been said, innocence is the first casualty of war ... and they don’t come more innocent than this magnificent horse.

Or more unforgettable.

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