Let’s be honest: When it’s come to Oscar-worthy films so far this year, they’ve been met with mixed reception from critics. J. Edgar is perhaps the most notable exception of buzzed films for the upcoming awards that turn out to be duds. But, as we get closer to nominations,War Horse is another film that’s also garnered a good amount of hype. Directed by Steven Spielberg, can War Horse prove that 2011 can end on a high note, and put some spice back into the Oscar race, or is it another overhyped failure?
Set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War, War Horse begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets-British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter-before the story reaches its emotional climax in the heart of No Man’s Land. The First World War is experienced through the journey of this horse-an odyssey of joy and sorrow, passionate friendship and high adventure.
Warning: The following post contains just a couple of spoilers
War Horse is absolutely incredible. I have a few problems with it that makes the film short from being absolutely , but the film is easily one of the best of the year. Not only does it provide great comical moments, bring the drama heavily, and have an outstanding cast to boot, but it’s not without two small problems. However, if you’re looking for an uplifting tale that definitely will send a range of emotions through you, while also remaining interesting, violent, shocking at times, and damn entertaining, War Horse is that film.
When it comes to these type of films, especially ones that can be Oscar-gold, there are plenty of times where the story, along with the various elements it thrusts out at the audience, can effectively manipulate you into trying too hard to poke emotions out of you, and that’s ultimately the beginning of War Horse. For the most part, it’s a cliche that epitomizes all heartwarming stories of the past. I felt as if the “unbreakable bond” between Albie and Joey moved just a bit too fast to be believable, especially with the time travelling jump cuts, and that’s one of the hardest parts of War Horse: the slow beginning that feels more like a dialogue-less Babe than anything with the farm setting. However, what Spielberg is actually doing is giving you a happier time to get into the character’s heads of innocence and joy before the true drama and grit of the film comes out in the form of the war.
This is where the film becomes incredible. Once the war begins, we move away from Albie, and the focus is solely upon Joey. How the horse bonds with various characters for the rest of the film, telling endearing stories of fear, bravery, promise, and more. Ultimately, it’s a creeping movement more in more into the sheer terror of war, and as the film progresses, the violence gets brutal. With Spielberg on board, these moments that could possibly repel audiences are shot actually tastefully, including various deaths, moments, and more. But, it still doesn’t take anything away from just how horrifying war can be, and it’s there that Spielberg does an outstanding job. There are a few moments of animal cruelty (which I’m not a huge stickler for) that, again, could have been much more repugnant if not done in the right hands, and yet Spielberg does his best to keep the PG-13 rating well, shielding audiences from various acts of bloodshed and murder. As soon as the first major battle takes place, which shows a huge English army being gunned down one-by-one, you get a feel for how the violence will mostly be shot (i.e. offscreen), and yet it still doesn’t take away any emotions from the moments. That’s where Spielberg’s directorial skills truly shine, and the moment in which we see this army cut down to size is when we truly get to feel the film leap from something “good” to something “remarkable”.
From here, we move into German hands, which is where Joey ends up. And here is where another astounding thing occurs. Here is where our titular hero is in the hands of the enemy. He’s in treacherous hands. We should hold plenty of hostility towards the people handling him. They should be seen as the villains. But somehow, in a passionate story between two brothers, we feel for these characters, and they share a bond similarly that Joey had with Albie. They’d do anything for each other. Despite being the enemy, and despite being the person whom we hate in the film, they aren’t the villains, and that line between foe and friend is blurred wonderfully. It’s no longer your typical war story of “good guys vs. bad guys”. It’s a story that shows this film will jump every possible barrier of prior belief, separating itself from your typical war movie, and solidifying itself in a way that makes you care for both sides of the line, not just the British.
Perhaps the most surprisingly great performance came within the next leap of the story in the form of Celine Buckens as Emilie. Her character discovers the horses, and we are eventually brought back into a similar atmosphere as the first part of the film: farm, family, and a good amount of comedic relief. But, the story also never neglects the war-torn setting, and brings drama that hits heavily to home for some people, with loss of parents, lack of bravery, and more. But, what’s fantastic about Buckens’ performance is that although she’s very young, she acts very much like an adult. She can hold her own exceptionally against Niels Arestrup, who plays Emilie’s grandfather, and the two have great chemistry together as well in that regard.
In fact, there’s rarely a bad performance in the bunch. Tom Hiddleston does great in the 15-20 minutes of screentime he receives, embodying fear extremely well, and the great actors around him help that out just as easily. Buckens and Arestrup mirror the paragraph above, while Emily Watson plays a strong charismatic character in the form of Albie’s mother Rose. Everyone throughout the story of Joey seems to be great, but there’s only one weak chain in the bunch: Jeremy Irvine who plays Albie. I’m not saying that he was horrible because he was actually quite the opposite. The problem is that he doesn’t nearly live up to the same portrayals as the people around him, especially when it comes to Joey’s tale. Irvine hits notes that get pretty high, but don’t nearly match the same ones from the various ensemble that make up the film. He bookends the film nicely, and is able to evoke emotion where it is necessary, including the final stretch of the film when Albie and Joey are reunited. But, despite not living up to that, he does hold the film together well enough.
While the second act of the film is one that transitions the story from pleasant tale to dramatically gripping, the third act is where the movie truly solidifies itself as a near-masterpiece. Everything leads up to an emotion-filled final run, which includes Joey’s panic-filled trek through No Man’s Land, the true losses of the war to Albie as we experience his time in the trenches, and even the sincere humanity in people who cut Joey free, seeking to save him despite the fact they’re fighting on opposite sides. It all builds towards a heartwarming reunion sure to have people misty eyed at the least, with a satisfying ending that will leave you exhausted as an audience member due to the deep investment you’ve laid into these characters.
I think my only problem of the film, and really it balances out, is the storytelling. By the time the war begins, you don’t quite have a feeling for Albie and Joey’s relationship completely yet. There’s not this final revelation that this relationship is an incredible bond, and that it can stand the test that they’re about to endure. It ultimately feels a bit underdeveloped, but Joey is still whisked away nonetheless. From here, we’re constantly forced to bounce around the war-torn story, constantly having to meet new characters, constantly having to learn their stories, their motives, and more. While it’s effective, and tells various sides of the story in remarkable ways, it also becomes a bit dull, being forced from each individual story that we’re just getting used to, and being moved on to the next war tale is just a bit frustrating. However, somehow, it all still works, blending together well, and making it one hell of a ride. It was just something that I didn’t care for a bit too much.
Visually, War Horse proves that it’s just as equally impressive as the entire film itself. Spielberg’s signature flair is there, and there are even some shots that call back to the old age of filmmaking that are truly exceptional. There are a few shocking shots, such as a dead horse being dragged out of frame in the background, but I think perhaps my favorite is the way the director shoots the scene of Gunther and his brother’s death. From the point of view of the windmill, the shot is blocked by the blades slowly turning, and the boys’ violent death is blocked by one of the passing blades in a smart way, and one of the more haunting shots as well.
Overall, War Horse is one of my favorite films of the year. A slow beginning, and a few other shortcomings, are the only movie’s problems, but it still doesn’t affect the film from undoubtedly being Spielberg’s best in the past decade, and even all-time as a director. The performances, the visuals, the themes, and more are all so extraordinary, if this somehow gets passed up at the Oscars, it’s a damn shame. 2011 has had many mixed opinions on films, especially when it comes to great ones. War Horse is one of the greatest ones by far. Though you can’t hear the horses talking, you grow so close with the animals, it’s almost as if you know what they’re thinking. There’s just something special about the film that conjointly works when all of the elements add up. Furthermore, it’s perhaps a great way to end out the year, and only further cements the legend that is Steven Spielberg.
4.5 out of 5 Stars
What did you think of the film? Let us know in the comments below!