The Adventures of Tintin which was fun and entertaining and not really all that memorable, and now War Horse, which isn’t bad in any way you can put your finger on – 146 minutes is a punishing running time for such an insubstantial, episodic story, but that’s the worst of it – but isn’t good in any way either, and while it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of craftsmanship of the most proudly old-fashioned sort, it's impersonal and programmatic and lacks any trace of urgency, any feeling that the director had any particular interest in making it whatsoever: it is the sort of handsomely done prestige picture that we all glance at, nod approvingly at its immaculate taste and professionalism, and completely forget about until its name crops up when we're making our picks for the Oscar pool.
Functionally, the film occupies roughly the same space in Spielberg's career as Amistad did in 1997: his second film back after a years-long vacation, the "serious" film immediately following a lighter, audience-pleasing popcorn adventure for which Spielberg himself largely sat out the post-production phase (the analogue here is The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which is manifestly unfair to Tintin: TLW:JP is readily the worst thing the director has ever made). The Amistad comparison holds approximately true in terms of the film's quality as well, although by virtue of not being based upon a true story, War Horse isn't quite as obnoxious when it makes its frequent lurches towards cloying sentiment.
Adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (the co-creator of Blackadder and Mr. Bean, which equips him not at all to write a tender war drama) from Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel, and Nick Stafford's 2007 play, the film begins in a twee Devon village where a beautiful thoroughbred is born on an exquisitely lit day. From there, he is purchased at auction by a farmer, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) for a sum of money he cannot even begin to afford, and raised by Ted's son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and trained to be a farmhorse as well as a beautiful animal with the uncanny ability to stand in exactly the right place so that he looks even more beautiful and impeccably framed still. On one dramatically grey day, Albert finally gets the horse, named Joey, to plow a rocky field, thwarting the venal landlord Lyons (David Thewlis); but then bad weather ruins the Narracott's crops, and only by selling Joey to a general in the newly broken-out Great War can Ted keep what is his for another season, breaking Albert's heart as he watches his only true friend ride out to battle among the delicately crafted shadows of the picturesque village where they live. I'm trying to say that the imagery in War Horse is shameless, just positively shameless in its beauty, and bless Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's ever-dependable cinematographer for hard onto 18 years now for knowing exactly how to turn as simple a shot as Peter Mullan picking up a muddy turnip into something so damn pretty that it makes your heart stop, but Jesus H. Christ, too much pretty and it stops feeling like you're doing it on purpose and more like you're just running on autopilot, with the switch stuck on "dappled".
Anyway, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who bought Joey, is killed in action, and the horse is taken by a kindly German, Gunther (David Kross), who instantly senses that the animal is too beautiful to grind along as a workhorse in the war, and tries to escape with Joey and a black horse, and his brother; they get caught, and the horses end up in the hands of a little French girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). And so on, and so forth - the structure of War Horse is that of a series of mini-movies, each of them focused on the life and suffering of the humans who cross paths with Joey against the tumultuous background of the First World War. Joey himself isn't really the protagonist, but rather the glue that holds these stories together; it's a strange and not inherently unsuccessful way of putting a film together, though feature films don't lend themselves to this kind of serial format unless the whole thing is stylised to some extreme, and War Horse is emphatically not stylised. That is to say, it's extremely stylised, but what Spielberg and crew are doing is aping classical Hollywood forms, and making the film look as resolutely "normal" as they can, to a point that it's almost bold in and of itself (I strongly dispute the common observation that the Devon village is Fordian: the gently ironic tone, maybe, but certainly not the visual language, which bears no trace of John Ford's method of foreground actors, creating frames-within-frames, or use of the film frame a structural element).
There are a few individual shots that approach perfection: a field of tall grass that suddenly and silently erupts with cavalrymen climbing atop their horses; a beautifully-choreographed shot of soldiers driving into a farmyard as Emilie, in the background, spirits the horses away; Joey running atop trench walls, backlit by mortars. A sequence of two soldiers, one English and one German, working to free the horse from a tangle of barbed wire in the middle of No Man's Land, is terrific in absolutely every way: beautifully composed and stunningly edited by Michael Kahn, who twice in a row has been the best single element of a Spielberg film, though War Horse - his and Spielberg's first collaboration to use a digital editing system - isn't as fluid and ingenious in its cutting as Tintin. At least two of the actors, Arestrup and Emily Watson as the worried, snappish Rose Narracott, Ted's wife and Albert's mother, are pretty great, surrounded by a large cast of talented and moderately famous people who mostly can't make a whole lot out of characters with such stunted arcs as are displayed throughout the film, the most irritating side effect of its structure.
The key thing, which I have not done a remotely good job of suggesting, is that's basically okay that War Horse is so colossally unchallenging; it is not anywhere near the top tier of Spielberg films, but it's solid enough family-style filmmaking (and not always to its benefit; the rigorously non-threatening trench warfare scenes, painterly and withdrawn, cry out desperately for some Saving Private Ryan grubbiness), not as manipulative as it easily could have been - this is largely due to John Williams, whose score is not half as cloying as some of the images it accompanies, and who always introduces a note of the ethereal into even the most saccharine shots - and if nothing else, the "performance" that Spielberg's direction and Kahn's editing get out of the horse, or horses as the case may be, playing Joey is about as good as narrative filmmaking about animals can get. By the time it's over, War Horse has said precious little about warfare, and just enough about the bond between man and horse that it can effectively tug at your hearstrings, if you are the sort of person who likes horses (full disclosure: I'm really, emphatically not, and I left the theater with my eyes bone-dry). It's as good as it needs to be and no more, but enough Oscar-season movies aren't even that good, that this is sufficient to give it a pass. That said, if Spielberg can't step up to the plate next time, we'll need to have a very serious talk.
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