by Tim Ross
‘Twas the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when all though the house extended family members were stirring to get out and about.
OK, I promise no more bad poetry, but it is true this week that houses full of visitors are looking for ways to get out for a while. Hollywood is more than happy to oblige with a slew of Oscar contenders and even action films generally released during the popcorn blockbuster season. “War Horse” should be near the top of your holiday viewing list.
This film is vintage Spielberg with highly lit scenes, a hint of magic in every stirring victory and a gentle touch with violence or loss. The veteran director has certainly delivered films with disturbing scenes – “Jaws” and “Saving Private Ryan” come to mind – but his comfort zone is more about suggesting pain or loss than shoving it down the viewer’s throat.
“War Horse” is perhaps the least controversial look at war you’ll see. Aside from one very difficult scene, the characters shed few tears, almost no blood – even during massive battle scenes – and the heroic horse Joey always succeeds where bigger, seemingly stronger, horses fail.
Joey is a thoroughbred horse in England in the early 20th century. The town drunk and war hero, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), decides to spend his meager savings on the horse he insists is special. A bidding war with his landlord (David Thewlis) ensues and Narracott announces “There are small days and there are big days.” He wins the bid, but puts himself in danger of losing his farm.
His bold assertion doesn’t amount to much at first, since what they need is a plough horse, not a thoroughbred. Narracott’s teenage son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who also sees something in the horse, names him Joey and takes up his training. Joey responds and the two become fast friends.
World War I soon sweeps everyone up, including Joey, who ends up as the mount of an English cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston). That partnership is almost immediately in peril and an epic adventure begins with Joey surviving the loss of owner after owner. Soon, Albert joins the war to find his beloved horse. We follow both boy and horse on separate journeys, but we know they are inexorably working their way to each other.
My biggest criticism of “War Horse” is Spielberg may have worked too hard to keep it accessible to a wide audience. Why can’t he let the Germans speak German and the French speak French? It would have lent an air of authenticity to the scenes and helped transport us to those places and times.
Also, the film comes off similar to early Hollywood studio films, such as “The Wizard of Oz,” where elaborate outdoor scenes were built indoors. The climax is completely predictable and classic Spielberg, but the director never fails to create emotion.
“War Horse” is a tame film in many ways, never bucking trends and always providing a smooth ride, but it will move and delight you and be a great excuse to get out of a noisy home for a while.
Grade: 3 out of 4
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis
Studio: DreamWorks SKG