'War Horse' delivers the unexpected

"War Horse"
DreamWorks SKG
2 hours, 26 minutes


Going to a Steven Spielberg movie anymore comes with certain expectations. Either you're going to get something fantastical and fun and silly, like "Tintin" or "Indiana Jones," or something serious like "Saving Private Ryan" or "Schindler's List." There's not a lot of in between with this guy, it seems -- either he's trying to knock the ball out of the park for the critics, or he's hitting a solid line drive right for the crowd.

When you go to see "War Horse," you'll probably go in with the expectation that you're about to see the critic-friendly Spielberg, but I have to caution you. Don't be confused by the fact that the first 15 or 20 minutes are a little, well, dorky. Schmaltzy. Overly sincere and melodramatic.

This is not cinema-veritae, hard hitting Spielberg, nor is it Harrison Ford hanging off the back of a truck fun Spielberg. It's both. The master has successfully, in my opinion, combined his two disparate genres into one. "War Horse" is a hard-hitting, at times, beautifully shot and staged homage to both the horrors of war and the open, unabashed sincerity of films from the 30s and 40s. In short, it's not what you're expecting.

Relative newcomer Jeremy Irvine plays Albert Narracott, a poor farmer's son who falls in love with a neighbor's newly sired colt. When the horse eventually comes up for auction, Albert has no hope of ever seeing him again, until, to his complete surprise, Albert's father shows up with him, having essentially bet the family farm on the animal. Joey, as Albert names him, however, is a thoroughbred, not a plough horse, and the common wisdom soon turns to the fact that old man Narracott is going to lose his farm unless Albert and Joey can plough the back field. No one who's ever seen a movie has any question about whether this will happen or not, but Spielberg succeeds in creating sufficient tension regardless.

Eventually, however, one ploughed field isn't enough. It's 1918, and there's a war on in Europe. Joey eventually is sold to a kind cavalry officer preparing to go to war with the Germans. Joey is gone, but Albert is determined to find him. What follows is a series of often tragic adventures with Joey as he traverses WWI though a series of owners of differing nationalities. His adventure is often touching, funny, scary, and, ultimately, uplifting.

There is much to love about this movie, especially after you give over to the stylistic considerations Spielberg has made. The acting is top-notch, from the stars to the smaller roles, such as the beautiful young French girl who so deftly steals every scene she's in. As well, there is an entire cast of unknowns who fully inhabit their scenes, giving smaller subplots much needed weight. The writing is also great, though at first I wasn't sold. Often, the 1930s feel just seemed silly, but it grows on you.

I can't really say enough about the cinematography. Vast or close-up, morning or night, the look of the film is brilliant straight through. It's also very "of a time." In fact, the final scenes will remind observant viewers of another blockbuster hit from 1939.

"War Horse" follows our protagonist deep into the war and back again, and this naturally creates a few problems professionally for Spielberg. Necessarily, the war becomes harsher the farther into the story we delve. This requires an element of realism, not overly done, but still pretty real. Is the harshness of war the tale Spielberg wanted to tell? Yes, but apolitically, through the eyes of the horse, and in keeping with that sincere style.

I loved this film. Yes, there were some small problems, most which were fixed when I gave over to the style. Spielberg is a difficult name to go wrong with even if he's not giving us the full-on realism WWI story you might have expected.

I had other reasons to want to go see this show, believe it or not. When in London this summer, I had planned on going to see the new West End sensational play, "War Horse," which had a reputation of being extraordinary. It was my and my wife's 15-year anniversary, so we shelled out for a slightly swankier hotel that we would normally get, this one in the heart of "Sexy Soho" or so the advertisements proclaimed. I mention this because the concierge staff at these places are renowned for being able to acquire tickets to sold out shows. When we asked about getting in to the fully booked "War Horse," however, the girl at the desk looked at us sadly and said, "You may have come back next year." Sold completely out. The reviews were phenomenal, and to see it in London's West End would have been a real treat.

Seeing Steven Spielberg's take on the subject matter at our local movie theatre is cool and all, but not what it could have been. Looking on the bright side, at least I got to see a real horse and not a puppet. So that's something.

Grade: A-

"War Horse" is rated PG-13 for war-related violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.


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