War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011) – Some movies you can tell just by the trailers that they’re designed to pull tears from the toughest of men. Some reach this goal, some don’t. They’re rarely the type of Oscar-worthy prestige movies they think they are. One man who can stir sentiment to remarkable results is Steven Spielberg. His presence in the director’s chair is what would persuade a viewer that this isn’t just some sob story about a boy and a horse. His command of cinema surely will raise this schmaltzy weeper to the level of high quality cinema? Sort of a mass market version of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, maybe? The trailers seem to imply a powerful war story. Spielberg’s worked well in that genre.

War Horsestarts with the birth of the eponymous horse Joey. Joey is purchased by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), a drunken veteran of the Boer War who is running a failing farm. He mostly bought it to spite his dickish landlord (David Thewlis) and when he gets home his wife Rose (Emily Watson) immediately points out that Joey is not the type of horse the farm needs. However, Ted’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) takes a shine to him. As you know from the trailers, hard times force the family to sell Joey to an army officer (Tom Hiddleston) who promises to return Joey to Albert after the war is over. Then again, it’s hard keeping promises in wartime. The cast is rounded out by more reliable character actors like Niels Arestrup, Eddie Marsan, Toby Kebbell, and the oh-so-incredibly-British-named Benedict Cumberbatch. There is, however, one little girl who’s fake French accent got on my nerves (I thought she was an American actress but Wikipedia reveals she’s English). I don’t like trashing child actors (yet I do it anyway) but her performance just bugged me. She seemed way out of her depth acting alongside the great Niels Arestrup (from 2009’s A Prophet).

The cinematography by Janusz Kamiński is breathtaking and Spielberg really does crank the emotion in several scenes but War Horse never quite manages to be the deeply moving work of cinema it strives to be. Also I thought parts of John Williams’s score reminded me a bit too much of Howard Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings (the English countryside of the film’s early parts also made this connection a bit more overt). Spielberg’s pull in the industry will probably lead to some nominations or whatever, but this isn’t among his best flicks. I did like the movie and was moved by parts of it (I have a soft spot for animals), but overall the movie was something less than I was hoping for. That’s not to say it’s not worth seeing, but manage your expectations.

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