Sunday, January 8, 2012

War Horse

Movie Review : War Horse
Director : Steven Spielberg
Genre : Drama / War
Starring : Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup
Released : December 2011
My Rating : 8 out of 10

Spielberg's latest movie, War Horse, has everything. A moving story, many memorable scenes, outstanding cinematography, heartfelt messages about the horrors of war - and a nice dose of sentimentalism. Overall, it's a high class demonstration of how the art of movies can be grand and effective.

Based on a best selling book by the same name, the movie takes us on a journey following the hero - a thoroughbred named Joey. We meet him when he is born. Albert (Jeremy Irvine) falls in love with him. His father Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys the horse at an auction to win an ego battle. His wife is not too happy about it. Deep in debt, they needed a plow horse for work. Albert trains the horse, and a bond develops between them. But World War I breaks out and circumstances force Ted to sell the horse to the army. As one tragic situation after another occurs, Joey gets transferred from one caretaker to another. But he is no ordinary horse and eventually finds his way back to Albert.

This synopsis and the promos may give you the impression that this is yet another boy-loves-his-pet story. A part of it is definitely that, but just a part. The backdrop of World War I offers little opportunity for being cute and innocent. Every time Joey's ownership gets transferred, it's because of tragic circumstances. Many would compare this to Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan". That comparison is valid, but not accurate. Here too, the battle scenes are real enough to make you feel the heat. You may have read about the first World War’s fighting in the trenches, but you will experience it here. That's where the similarity ends. In "War Horse",  it's the war that’s the villain, not a person. Most people we meet have the right intentions, but the sad reality is, all wars are simply horrific - and that's a big message of the story.

This starkness makes it impossible to categorize this as a feel-good movie, in spite of the predictable happy ending. There is a lot of sadness, pain and tragedy throughout. It is no easy story to present and Spielberg masterfully prevents the movie from being too depressing. There is just the right amount of laughter and hope and good-heartedness sprinkled throughout to keep a perfect balance. Only an experienced and accomplished director can manipulate our emotions like that.

Another challenge of the story is the sheer number of characters. Again, Spielberg shines through. The movie should be a tutorial to all those single dimensional action flicks on how to define a character in just a few minutes. Of course it’s done to make us love the characters, so when tragedy strikes, we reach for our handkerchiefs.

Like many other great directors, Spielberg has given us numerous impossible-to-forget scenes. The rolling boulder from Indian Jones, the T-Rex in the side view mirror from Jurassic Park, the girl in red coat from Schindler's List - everyone will have his or her list. I added a few to my own list. Joey's run through the battleground left me speechless. For that scene alone, I can recommend this movie. Of course the one immediately after that, where an English and a German soldier work together to help Joey, is also memorable for its poignancy. In another scene, German machine guns eliminate the English cavalry. Spielberg shows us horses without any riders on their back, jumping over the trenches. This indirect method of showing the massacre will touch all viewers, and kids will likely cry.

Acting is superb overall, but all individual characters are just supportive to the journey of the War Horse. Even though everyone does extremely well with the limited screen time, I have to mention Jeremy Irvine, considering that this is his first movie. And of course, the real star - the horse - is a wonderful actor too. Very elegant, and with eyes of a puppy. It's impossible to not like him.

Since I am a fan of John Williams, I have to mention the music. This score is not as memorable as Star Wars or Indian Jones or Jaws or Superman (and the list goes on), but it will very likely add to his unbelievable total of 45 Oscar nominations.

Camerawork is great too. Yes, there are some cliched shots – especially the ending scene. But it’s easy to forgive, because in general, the idea is to be supportive by creating the right atmosphere, yet to remain unobtrusive so that attention is not diverted from the story.

This one has my very strong recommendation. But do not think of it as a family movie. It's not for young children. The war scenes are extremely intense. There is no gore, but there is violence. It's suggestive, but potent. Horses get hurt. These images can be very disturbing. It's likely to be fine for teenagers. But everyone will feel the emotional impact - that I guarantee.

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