If only the magnificent opening shot of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse was followed up with a story half as profound, then disappointment would not be so tangible. Shot with a truckload of affection by Janusz Kaminski, and intentionally evoking the films of John Ford, the imagery is the most compelling feature of War Horse, a maddeningly schmaltzy movie.
The elements are all in place - superb casting (newcomer Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston and Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch), gorgeous cinematography, John Williams’ lovely score; unfortunately the story never connects. War Horse falls into the clutches of long, intense ‘Spielberg Stares’ from nearly every character in the movie, inducing little drama that feels tiring and shallow. God’s rays could not have done a more admirable job of lighting War Horse, but the film’s aesthetic beauty doesn't compensate for the lack of a rewarding story.
Based on a popular 1982 book by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse revolves around Joey, a remarkable horse who is cared for by Albert, a young farm boy in England. World War I breaks out and Joey is taken away from Albert to be used in battle. The book focused on Albert's search throughout Europe to find Joey but the film only follows Joey's harrowing journey, where he is befriended, claimed and used by several different people across the continent. As Joey is passed from Albert to a soldier to a general to a little French girl to another soldier, War Horse plummets from sweet eye candy to agonizing melodrama. The conflicts are predictable and all the actors speak in frustratingly over the top histrionic dialogue. And by the hundredth beautifully crafted trail of smoke and explosion of artistic splendor, War Horse loses more than a little steam.
Spielberg employs a visual style that is a throwback to classic John Ford movies. Every single shot is meticulously framed and flawlessly lit, but the movie completely fails at the human level. Most of the characters remain strangers to us, and it gets difficult to sympathize with any of them. Spielberg is the grandmaster of milking themes like family, home and longing, but unlike in his other films he offers too few moments of genuine emotional power. Even the leitmotifs of loss and moving on seem too labored and superficial. The attempts at wrenching out tears are unbelievably corny - one plot point contains the horse being mercilessly snatched away by soldiers from a sickly young French girl who lives with her grandfather.
The battle scenes are astounding, and a reminder of how talented Spielberg truly is. Long, uncut shots pretty much throw you into the nightmarish trenches and the battlefields. But however admirable the film’s sense of foreboding may be, it is impossible not to be put off by a story that’s increasingly contrived, saccharine and schmaltzy.
War Horse is a ho-hum affair, watchable but not the least bit memorable. At two and a half hours it is too long and predictable, when 90 minutes would have been plenty. By the time it reaches its passionately sappy ending, it succeeds in making us remember it as dispassionately as possible.
(First published in Mid Day)