Film Review: War Horse
Here’s a morsel for Mr David Cameron, Prime Minister of these British Isles to chew over in his current rut over the UK’s cinematic output: It’s taken an American Filmmaker to make a great British film. Why is that? It can’t be a cultural thing can it? We may have an answer in the aesthetics: Spielberg has shot the typically drizzly and overcast English countryside like the American Frontier. Bathed in a golden sunset and hewn far closer to Gone with the Wind than The Wind the Shakes the Barley. War Horse’s Devon may remind you more of Kansas than ol’e Blighty, this is the cinema of Hollywood’s Golden age. High melodrama backed by the finest symphonic score celluloid has to offer. This is not a story of nations, nor flags. This is classical storytelling told in a timeless tradition.
Where Spielberg traded visual storytelling for hyperactive overkill in Tintin, he rebounds with graceful aplomb in War Horse. This is a director and his cinematographer working in perfect unison, Spielberg commands every element of the screen, every shot, pan and edge of the frame tells the story. The camera moves to introduce characters within the frame. This is not filmmaking content with cuts telling us where and when to look. Michael Kahn’s editing compliments the onscreen action and never dictates it (as is typical of contemporary filmmaking).
The story of Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his faithful horse Joey is a fairytale, unashamedly so. Parallels with Black Beauty are self-explanatory, this certainly shares much by way of narrative DNA but the setting expands it into a vast epic that stretches from rural English idylls to the barren ruin of The Battle of the Somme. Those battle sequences are tastefully executed, contrasting Saving Private Ryan’s seismic camera shakes and exploding viscera with the juxtaposition of life and the absence of life. In a sequence who’s methods may seem closer to classic Disney, a cavalry charge is mown down by machine gun fire. The horses and their riders charge toward the guns, the horses run past the guns without their riders. Not a drop of blood is shed and yet it is as harrowing as a three buckets worth.
The cast is populated with the best of the UK’s acting talent, so much so that such a stellar ensemble threatens to overshadow the central performance of Jeremy Irvine. This may indeed be the central flaw to the film, as we follow Joey through a multitude of what are basically subplots. The redeeming feature here is that Joey is the central character here and the triumph of the film is that we, as an audience, can make our way just fine with Joey. The combination of Joey and Albert is in that regard, a heart-warming perfect storm. The overriding sentiment is the separation of family, the reunion is the driving force behind everything that takes place from that point onwards.
These are big emotions at play here, and this is not a film that minces with subtext. This is filmmaking with its heart on its sleeve for audience to see. Those tears that are running down your face and into your popcorn? Those are tears of joy, tears of the realisation of the beauty and power of cinema. This is the work of a filmmaker with an utmost love of his craft and the heritage of film. A heartfelt symphony of pure cinema.