Sugar. When you add a little bit to your coffee or your cereal it tastes good. When you start pouring the stuff down your throat as if it was water, the sweetness becomes overpoweringly bitter. This essentially is War Horse – a film so sickly sweet that you could probably catch flies with it.
So, what side of the fence do you fall on: are you the sentimental type who cries at weddings? Then you will absolutely love this movie. If you are a cynic and a cranky old fart, you will find the sentimentality of this movie overbearing.
It’s just before the outbreak of the First World War. A struggling English farming family needs a work horse to help plough the field. At auction, Ted (Mullen) can’t help himself and buys a thoroughbred instead. His son, Albert (Irvine), promises his mum (Watson) to care for the horse he has named Joey, train him and somehow get it to plough the rocky fields so that they can keep it (both the horse and their farm). He succeeds, but alas, the rains wash away their crop. As the First World War begins, with the family desperate for money, Ted sells the horse to a cavalry officer (Hiddleston), and Albert vows to find his pal wherever the war horse may be. And so Joey’s adventure through the Great War begins.
War Horse is a Steven Spielberg kind of movie. He has a fondness for modern melodramas guaranteed to satisfy both the young and old, especially when they are grandiose, long and showy. I don’t think it is a stretch to call Spielberg a master at film making, but this picture is no masterpiece. While every detail is carefully considered, and every leaf on every tree is perfectly aligned, and every equine muscle and every country cottage and every puff of smoke from a fired weapon is perfectly framed, there is simply not enough of a story to back up the terrific look of the film. And here’s a question – is it simply not possible for Spielberg to make a film without John Williams writing the score?
What we do know is that Spielberg can direct the hell of out a war and battlefield scene as he has shown on numerous occasions. And it isn’t until we actually reach the war that the movie picks up a little momentum. From the frightened soldier whose hands are shaking so much that he can barely pull the pin on his grenade, to the rats that immediately congregate around the fresh corpses, it’s these types of scenes that bring reality to war – all be it, on a much lighter scale than some of his past efforts like Saving Private Ryan, due in large part to the nature of the audience. It’s just frustrating these scenes are too few and far between – all the heartfelt and tender moments of the film are dedicated solely to pulling your heartstrings take centre stage all too often.
For the most part, the characters (aside from the horse) are pretty flat stereotypes – the noble cavalry officer, the greedy landowner, the kindly grandfather, etc. Watson and Mullan manage to find some realistic moments as the struggling parents, but the main lead, the newcomer Irvine, is not so much awe-inspiring as awe-wondering, as in I wonder how they came to cast this guy in the first place.
War Horse is a beautifully photographed film and should be appreciated for its terrific work in this area and may be worth seeing simply for this reason. However, you must remember that this film is so sappy that you could probably tap it for maple syrup.
Dir: Steven Speilberg;
US drama, 2011, 145 mins;
Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullin, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston
Premiered January 26