Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Review: War Horse

Rating: PG
Duration: 146 mins

With the release of War Horse comes a new year. It's a film that will conveniently be fresh in everyone's mind just in time for Oscar season. Do not mistake intention for coincidence, mind, as Spielberg emerges from a successful 2011 with Tin Tin to begin the year with his adaptation of the beloved 1982 novel penned by Michael Morpurgo, as well as the acclaimed theatrical play of the same name.

However, one must take into account that this is based on a children's book, and the content is just that: from the off-set Spielberg plays it overly safe, with too many scenarios that feel anything but threatening or genuine, as the glossy construction of the backdrops and lighting remind us that we're in the midst of a movie world. 

The translation from page to big screen can debatably be deemed successful. Indeed, War Horse will entertain and appeal if you are visiting the cinema with the family on a care-free Sunday afternoon, whom have the capacity to embrace the unadventurous, secure nature of the story. If you don't fall into such a category and plan on seeing this as a precursor to a Friday night pub visit, you'll end up so deflated that you'll skip the beers and head straight home to weep in the corner of the utility room.

Undoubtedly, Spielberg shouldn't be discredited for a decade-long dip in an otherwise glittering career, either; renowned for directing some of the most enchanting movies of the 20th Century, his ability is unquestionable, yet his latest epic feels as if it's simply going through the motions. It relies upon an unadventurous audience happy to embrace Spielberg on reputation alone, who will watch in awe as he constructs a mundane and continuously safe narrative, and one that never once strays into even half-daring territory.

The biggest problem, aside from Spielberg showing his dealt hand right from the beginning is the drab pacing as, considering the 146 minute length, it noticeably drags. Furthermore, the characters he gives to us are so one dimensional that we never even begin to engage with or relate to them.

Having said that, War Horse is competently directed and produced: some visual aspects looks delightful thanks to some wonderful cinematography and a compelling, if not memorable score courtesy of John Williams adds for some atmosphere, but it never ventures from its overtly constrained boundaries, nor does it change into a higher gear when it needs to.

Arguably the best scenes are the ones that focus on the physical nature of war: the build up to enemy encounter as troops emerge from the WW1 trenches is vaguely reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, which is where the similarities end. These well produced segments are unfortunately weighed down with an uneventful narrative and whimsical characterisation that plods along, as it fails to convince.

Emotionally, the acting never quite connects, as we are gifted an ensemble of British talent such as Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddlestone and lead, Jeremy Irvine, but instead feels like a who's-who merely fighting for advertising space. What doesn't translate particularly well is how an emotionally complex, caring protagonist is demonstrable through the eyes of a horse. Unwisely, Spielberg decides to force physical expression and emotion where it simply cannot and should not exist: one memorable shot sees Joey (the horse) turn to glance behind him; a sad glint in his eye, followed by a troubled grimace. Priceless. Possibly a bad case of wind, but either way such portrayal doesn't bode well if one is to believe the story and buy into it without it appearing ridiculously contrived.

In short, we never witness any genuine danger or conflict: the entire film fails to challenge its audience, instead relying on family-friendly securities with a horse’s plight that seems impervious to harm as virtually everyone emerges unscathed: it's too damn considerate for its own good.

VERDICT: War Horse is typically classic in its Spielbergian storytelling, but never builds any momentum. At times it is pleasant and can be perceived as enjoyable on the most basic of levels. It boasts a talented cast that aren't utilised in a movie that gracefully, yet safely translates as a largely uninspiring tale. Ultimately it's far too comfortable and lazy, and Spielberg knows it.

One final note: look out for the comic relief in the form of a farmyard goose: a real contender to pip The Artist's Uggie the dog to the accolade of Most Charming Performance by an Animal.