18 January 2012

Review: War Horse

(Dir: Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Bland and average. Not words you’d typically associate with Spielberg right? Usually his films have something about them; something that makes him one of the most loved directors in history. Lately though he seems to have lost this 'something', most noticeably with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but also with the recent disappointing The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. So what to expect from War Horse, the 2nd Spielberg film in 3 months? On paper this seemed like the film to get him back on track, taking him again into familiar territory (yes the fourth Indiana Jones film can be deemed familiar territory too, but there was perhaps too long an absence from the franchise and too weak a story), but alas it seems that we now have to live with the idea that Spielberg is no longer the 'master' he once was.

War Horse is certainly the most blandly average and forgettable Spielberg film I’ve ever seen. It’s competent from a technical perspective – the sets look believable, the sound effects work well, the camerawork is solid with a couple of beautifully framed shots and the horses manage to hit their marks and do what they should. The issue chiefly lies with the story which doesn’t really work as a film. The opening half hour leads you to believe that Jeremy Irvine’s character, Albert, is the lead. Not so. He quickly disappears from the story only to appear again much later – the lead character is actually the horse, Joey, which you follow throughout the film on its journey, as a variety of characters are brought in and then quickly discarded.

This is the problem. There are some potentially interesting stories to be had from these characters, if there’d been more focus and actual time spent developing them, but they all appear and vanish too quickly before you get to know them or can develop any attachment. So you’re left to care about a horse, which is, just a horse. It can’t act, it can’t show any emotion, it does what it’s forced to do with grit and that’s fine, but when there’s no human element to hang the story on there’s no reason to give a damn. The film just plods along like this, leading to an ending that is so contrived it’s incredulous and laughable.

Despite this there is one highly memorable scene in the latter part of the film, that shines like a beacon in a sea of mediocrity. I won’t ruin it, but it effectively manages to show the futility and pointlessness or war whilst also being fairly humorous and poignant.

So we’re left with a film that on the surface appears to be very well put together, but as it progresses and you wish to dig deeper you realise there isn’t actually much there across it's excessive 140+ minute run time. The theatrical production has received many plaudits and I imagine this story would potentially work easier on stage than it does on screen. It’s not a bad film, it’s just not a good film either. It’s an exercise in mediocrity and we all know Spielberg can do better than that.

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