Review: War Horse
PLOT: Young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is a lad growing up on an impoverished farm in Devon. His drunken father (Peter Mullan) spends the family savings on a beautiful horse in an effort to best his landlord (David Thelwis). Alberts mother (Emma Watson) is horrified by her husbands purchase, but Albert feels a deep bond with the animal, which he names Joey. With the outbreak of WW1, his father sells the horse to a dashing Calvary officer (Tom Hiddleston), whos touched by Alberts devotion to the animal, and vows to one day return the animal to its rightful owner. But war is an unpredictable beast, and soon Joey finds himself in an increasingly dark odyssey through the blood-soaked battlefields of WW1.
REVIEW: I wasnt prepared for this. In the days leading up to the press screening of WAR HORSE, Steven Spielbergs latest- I was joking with friends about the premise. Yeah right, a horse in war... whatever, I thought. Boy, oh boy, was I wrong.
From the first seconds of the film, showing Joeys birth under the watchful eyes of his soon-to-be beloved master Albert, I was hooked. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at, with DP Janusz Kaminski eschewing his usual washed-out palate, for beautiful greens and golden hues. In these early scenes, its like Spielberg was channeling John Fords HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. But then, the film takes a dark turn upon the outbreak of war, and from there it becomes a harrowing odyssey that shows both the terror of war, as well as some of the humanity that transcended the battle lines. One thing WAR HORSE illustrates is that, initially, The Great War was fought with a 19th century chivalry that was impossible to maintain in the face of a 20th century war that dished out death on a scale that was unimaginable to even the hardest veterans.
Theres a scene about an hour in that really drives home this point, when Joeys new master Captain Nichols (a touchingly humane performance by Tom Hiddleston that strikes me as Oscar-worthy) is forced to lead a Calvary charge, only to find his unit decimated by German artillery. There a shot contrasting the horses being ridden by their soldiers, to the horses, now rider less, jumping over the machine gun nests, thats stirring and perhaps even iconic.
Once the film gets to the war, it becomes highly reminiscent of western called WINCHESTER 73, which charted the fates of several old west characters as the titular rifle fell into their hands on the way back to its rightful master. We see Joey has he goes from Nichols, to a German deserter (David Kross, THE READER) to a farmer (Niels Arestrup, A PROPHET) and his sickly granddaughter, to a German soldier (Nicholas Bro, ADAMS APPLES) who sees a humanity in Joey and his devotion to another Calvary horse that he doesnt see in his fellow soldiers.
As the war winds on, Albert finds himself on the battlefields, leading to a climax that left me absolutely gutted. For the last twenty minutes or so, I was a quivering puddle, and this is the first time in a while that a film has had that kind of devastating, emotional effect on me.
Make no mistake; this is Spielberg at his most masterful. Id wager its at least on par with MUNICH (which is brilliant up until the last 15 minutes), and might even be his best since SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Young Jeremy Irvine is a real find as Albert, and his relationship with Joey will be profoundly moving to anyone whos ever had a close relationship with a beloved pet (I found myself thinking of my childhood dog throughout).
Naturally, some are going to attack WAR HORSE regardless of whether or not they like it, as in our cynical age emotion and humanity seems to have gone out of fashion- which is a tragedy. Theres room for optimism, and while this is a dark tale, its message- that theres humanity in even the direst of circumstances, is one that should resonate with us all. Its a masterpiece.
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