January 26, 2012

War Horse Swells Tears and Rolls Eyes

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Steven Spielberg’s sweeping epic War Horse is a beautiful film that teaches a great lesson on how to anthropomorphize without words. Set in WWI-era Europe, young English farm boy Albert is heartbroken when his beloved horse Joey is sold into the cavalry. While the story centers on the animal’s journey, the horse merely serves as a tool to explore the lives of the war-ravaged Europeans. Joey travels through England, France and Germany, touching the lives of soldiers and citizens alike. One may think this sounds like the formula for a slightly overdone and clichéd journey. That it is.

The formula for the film makes it slightly predictable. The story goes where the horse goes, as the war destroys the lives of those who love him in one way or another. The dialogue at times feels slightly forced and melodramatic. Each separate story is very unique and compelling, but the theatrical, quality of the interactions does detract slightly from the serious mood of the film.

However, there is the justification that the filmmakers adapted War Horse from an acclaimed play.  Spielberg wants to keep the theatrical drama alive — with bright lighting, histrionic acting and whatnot —and, when remembering these qualifications, it works.

It is the story itself that sometimes confuses. The harsh shift to brutal violence about two-thirds through the film shatters the mood built up to that point. Yet there are also times when the film drags hopelessly. The aforementioned lighting effects may puzzle the viewer. The lighting is extremely harsh and bright, with strong casting shadows and an exaggerated color palette. At some points, it makes the film look cheap and pedestrian. However, at other points these features accentuate the breathtaking scenery and magnificent cinematography. Returning to the concept of the stage to screen adaptation, the bright lights powerfully evoke the harsh presence of a stage light. In the scheme of the work, the peculiar lighting actually makes sense.

Though there were significant drawbacks, the film has enough effective intrigue to compensate. While many of the stories obey overdone clichés, they nonetheless touched the heart through believable scenarios. A large supporting cast only appears on-screen for short vignettes, yet these characters feel familiar and developed. The audience really connects with them, elevating the overall emotional effect of the film. There is also a wide range of different archetypes among the characters, increasing empathy through familiar, and perhaps personal, molds. It’s doubtful that the film would have accomplished such a high level of emotional connection without the variety in these characters, with numerous father figures and teenage youth that strike a chord.

Standing out among the cast is newcomer Jeremy Irvine, portraying the protagonist Albert. He approaches the role with sincerity and real heart. His moments with Joey will turn on the waterworks.

The emotional punch of the film also comes from the war scenes. The depictions of WWI in War Horse are brilliant, terrifying and visceral, not unlike a gore-free Saving Private Ryan. The ornamentations of cinema appear to melt away as these young boys are thrown into a living nightmare. The film expresses the age-old idea that no matter what side a soldier is on, everyone is all the same. An especially touching moment occurs when two soldiers, one German and one English, work together to cut Joey loose from a tangle of barbed wire. They speak casually and with civility, ignoring the fact that they soon both may be dead. The exchange is very bittersweet, and adds a new level of authenticity to the emotional mood of the film.

Overall, what really completes the movie is the scenery and camerawork. The sweeping views of the English countryside are absolutely breathtaking, and the war scenes have a savage surreality about them that clearly took a lot of skill and preparation to achieve. Some of the side stories also have a surreal quality to them, a curious touch that is about reminiscent of a children’s book. The eclectic nature of the camerawork keeps the film interesting and psychologically intriguing.

This film had a tough job on its plate. While the play was critically acclaimed, one thing that made it so impressive was the intensely complicated puppetry that went into depicting Joey the horse. The film used a real horse, and therefore lost the novelty that the play had. Losing the interest the puppet created, the film makes up for it by adopting a romantic, sweeping quality that distracts from the slightly dragging plotline and strange dialogue quirks. War Horse stays touching with tear-jerking moments from start to (especially) finish. The work behind-the-scenes shines and the characters stay compelling, whether the script throws them in the savagery of battle or serenity of pasture. Fans of subtlety should find a different film though, for the clichés and maudlin emotions may cause eyes to roll.

Original Author: Sarah Finegold