Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

4 out of 5

The use of horses as cavalry mounts and beasts of burden in World War I - a conflict that introduced so many horrors of modern combat - is a sad anachronism tailor-made for effusive metaphors of old ways surrendering to new. While director Steven Spielberg can't completely resist such obvious comparisons in
War Horse, his adaptation of the critically-acclaimed play itself drawn from a children's novel, he deserves credit for largely avoiding simplifications and letting the story's elemental struggle between beauty and brutality unfold at its own pace. For the first half-hour it's the tale of a boy (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, Joey, a magnificent and headstrong colt impulsively purchased by his father (Peter Mullan) at auction. Irvine's special bond with the animal is solidified when he must turn Joey into the plow-horse that Mullan was meant to acquire. This bond is then tested when the family's continuing financial struggles force Mullan to sell the horse to an English cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) shortly after Britain declares war on Germany.

From there Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski create a gradual and seamless transition from the perpetual stillness of the verdant English countryside to the perpetual hell of the Western Front. Joey is featured in a series of vignettes that flow effortlessly into each other, winding up with a pair of deserters, a sickly French girl and her protective grandfather (Neils Arestrup), and a German artillery detail. Slowly but surely, the horse transforms into a type of ennobling symbol, a benchmark of the innocence lost in the great slaughter. Though the film's thematic motifs and emotional cues bear a certain resemblance to those in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg's trademark sentimentality works just as well with this particular narrative, distinguished by a message more universal than the director's solemn tribute to the Greatest Generation.

War Horse also has a harshness that distinguishes it from typical feel-good fare. Few films do a better job of capturing the utter confusion of trench warfare and its complex mixture of savagery and camaraderie. Virgin forests quickly transform into the muddy, denuded wasteland of No Man's Land, where an encounter between the horse and two enemy soldiers turns into a conspicuously theatrical yet moving commentary on how the promise of friendship could possibly overcome an appetite for destruction. After spending so much time surrounded by anxiety and fear and muck, the film's one major misstep is raising the possibility of redemption too conveniently. But the world of War Horse is one of fundamentally good people trying to make the best of a terrible situation - caring for Joey allows them to believe in the brightness of humanity while they endure a maelstrom attributable to the worst angels of our nature. "The war has taken everything from everybody," remarks Arestrup, echoing a German officer who forcefully requisitions war maté
riel from his small family farm. After witnessing the film's endless string of sacrifices, a sweet catharsis is well deserved.

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