Movie Review: War Horse

It’s a bit of a surprise we’re not sitting here talking about War Horse as the presumptive Best Picture front-runner when you look at the facts.  It’s a Steven Spielberg-directed film, based upon an award-winning play, set during World War I, scored by John Williams, shot by Janusz Kaminski, starring a bevy of talented British actors…what could go wrong?  The answer: none of the above.  It’s the script.

Let’s get this out of the way first: War Horse wants to be an epic film, and it achieves an “epic” status.  It is gorgeously shot, a vividly painted and majestic backdrop of the English countryside, and sounds as strong as anything you’re likely to see in theatres from 2011.  The mix of gunfire and cannons settles in with a beautiful score from Williams – it’s almost a counter-argument against 3D, in a way.  You don’t need to put on glasses to feel like you’re in the trenches – you’re simply drawn in by the sound of it all.  And there are some singularly amazing shots here – a horse running alone through the middle of the battlefield, an orange-lit sky on a return home, a horse and a speeding car racing alongside the road.  In sight and sound, War Horse is a supreme achievement.

But the movies are about so much more than sight and sound.  They’re about dialogue, acting and characters, and War Horse falls well short of greatness in each of these categories.  Newcomer Jeremy Irvine is placed in the title role here, and his performance fails to inspire.  There’s a special connection here between boy and horse.  I get that.  But Irvine plays it almost to self-parody – I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had proposed to the damn thing at some point.

Best part of horse weddings: the groom doesn’t have to spring for a tuxedo.

While Irvine gets the most screen time, characters are cycled in and out of this thing almost every minute.  Some make a lasting impression, such as Niels Arestrup, who stands out as an old German grandfather.  But others don’t.  It’s been about a month and a half since I saw War Horse in theatres, and Wikipedia tells me that Benedict Cumberbatch plays Major Jamie Stewart.  I’ve become completely enraptured with Cumberbatch’s performance as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock, and still I find myself racking my brain here to ask myself “when was he in the film?” and “who is Major Jamie Stewart?”

All of that could be more excused if not for the film’s brutal screenplay.  The script, which Spielberg should have reigned in (pardon the pun), extends the film to a whopping 2 hours and 26 minutes, a running time that feels every bit as long.  Scenes are dragged on and on until the screenplay’s finally beaten a dead horse. (Again, pardon the pun.) Too often you want the characters or the plot to be put down. (I’m sorry, I really can’t help it.)

Its biggest problem is an ironic one.  This is Spielberg, a master storyteller, who needs almost no dialogue to captivate the audience.  The ingredients are in place here – the most emotional scenes in War Horse are buoyed by Williams’ resounding score and Kaminski’s astonishing cinematography.  I came close to tears on a few occasions purely because of what I saw on the screen.  But Spielberg and screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall are so intent at tugging on the audience’s heartstrings that they end up emotionally manipulating the audience.  We are constantly told how to feel by the characters.  War Horse becomes a Movie for Dummies, where our emotions are not allowed to operate without express written consent from the screenplay.

Actual copy of the script.

The irony of it all is where War Horse stands in the cinematic year of 2011, where the prevailing theme seemed to be “less is more.”  Think of the power of Ryan Gosling, practically mute in Drive.  Or Tom Hardy, only speaking out of absolute necessity in Warrior.  Or, of course, The Artist, which tells an amazing story in a silent format.  People can get the message a film is trying to convey without words, but War Horse doesn’t seem to grasp that.  It beats you over the head with heavy-handed dialogue until the very end.

And the most frustrating part of it all?  That’s where War Horse absolutely knocks it out of the park, in a wordless, powerful final scene.  It’s an amazingly moving finish to an otherwise frustrating film – and all the while, I wanted to scream out, “I waited 2 hours and 20 minutes for this!”  Imagine asking for a medium steak and receiving an overcooked one – you know that it some point it was damn near perfect, but the whole thing’s just been overdone.  That’s War Horse.

Grade: C

P.S. – Here’s the best movie-related moment involving horses in 2011.


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