Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Saturday, 4 February 2012

War Horse is simply a mixed bag

A film which flits between brilliance and over-indulgence has generated a false division amongst critics

War Horse has been incredibly divisive. Is it a moving, genuinely affecting masterpiece? Or is it a schmaltzy, manipulative, over-the-top deluge of sentimentality (no pun intended)?

Well, as is often the case with such divisive movies, it is a bit of both. It is Spielberg with phasers set to blub and firing on all cylinders and the end result is that some of the film is thrilling, moving and often devastating filmmaking, whilst other bits of it just go far too far.

After a first act which drags, setting up the central man-horse bond, the film finally begins to find its groove when it becomes a war film. However, it is slightly compromised here by its need to be a family film. The war scenes are well-executed, if lacking shock factor, but they are unremarkable: a visual rehash of that view of the First World War you formed in school whilst reading Wilfred Owen. That is with the exception of a surprise cavalry charge, which is unexpected, terrific and heart-breaking.

The main thrust of the film follows the war from the horse’s perspective, and the upshot of this is that we get many little miniature story strands with characters who are with us for a little while, then gone. Many of them are just not given enough room to breathe, and their exits do not have the emotional impact one might expect.

Some may think that certain departures are thoroughly manipulative, but that is not a fair accusation. Spielberg doesn’t manipulate in this film and only serves the story, but he does sometimes lose control in pursuit of that aim. An Anglo-German encounter in No Man’s Land is just unbelievable, and the yellowy-sunset hue of the final scene is simply risible.

However, on the other hand, it does have some absolutely breathtaking moments. The lead horse, Joey’s charge through the WWI battlefield is thrilling and painful to watch, and the emotional climax of the film may well be hackneyed, but it is undeniably moving.

So, it absolutely is a mixed bag. It doesn’t require people to decry it as over-sentimental tosh, nor does it deserve to be called a modern masterpiece. It hits and it misses, but the one word clear word I will say in its defence is that it is not cynically manipulative. It tells a story which is placed in a naturally upsetting time, and it is Spielberg aiming to tear-jerk at every turn, but he is not doing so in a cynical way. It is what the story calls for. On that count, it deserves fairer treatment from some critics.

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