Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Saddled with sentiment

It's a thoroughbred production, but when it comes to realism, drama fails to pony up

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Before it became "A Film by Steven Spielberg," War Horse was a children's book by Michael Morpurgo and a hit play.

Given Spielberg's Oscar-y track record, it comes to the big screen with loads of prestige (note the Christmas Day release date) and the promise that the film version will be the best possible incarnation of the story.

I doubt that. War Horse is a lovely film, to be sure. But given its examination of the ugliness of war, it seems pertinent to ask: Should it be so very lovely?

Spielberg pulls out all the stops early on. The setting: English countryside. Cue the lyrical pseudo-Vaughn Williams strings, courtesy of composer John Williams, as we are introduced to the horse Joey as he is born. The beautiful beast falls into the hands of an alcoholic farmer (Peter Mullan) too proud to relinquish the horse to his rich landlord (David Thewlis) at auction.

Fortunately, the farmer's son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) has already fallen for the horse and vows to do anything he can to keep him, including training him for the grunt work of plowing a rocky field.

But war looms in Europe and soon the horse is transferred into the possession of an English cavalry captain (Tom Hiddleston). Call Joey a draft horse.

The captain is all very conscientious and gallant, but the face of combat changed in the First World War, and Spielberg duly portrays the transition in a scene in which an old-fashioned cavalry charge collides with the 20th century in the form of a barrage of machine gun fire.

Suddenly in the possession of Germans, Joey is stolen by a pair of young brothers who attempt to desert. And the horse winds up under the protection of a Dutch farmer (Niels Arestrup) before being taken by more villainous Germans, who hook him up to cart heavy artillery uphill. Joey unknowingly switches allegiances again, only to wind up in the vicinity of young Albert, who has evidently joined the army with the express purpose of finding his horse.

Photographed for maximum lushness by Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List), War Horse again is a lovely looking film, but that loveliness is at odds with the story on multiple levels. A view of war as seen through the eyes of an animal would surely be a horror movie and not a pseudo-inspirational drama.

Spielberg and screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall extend the romantic fallacy to providing Joey with an equine pal with whom he might play out anthropomorphic notions of friendship and sacrifice among the horsy set.

One cannot fault the film's production, which is superb, and makes for an esthetically pleasing time at the movies. It's all so beautiful and stirring -- and as false as the promise of adventure and glory that drew all those young men into the war in the first place.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2011 D1

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About Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

His dad was Winnipeg musician Jimmy King, a one-time columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. One of his brothers is a playwright. Another is a singer-songwriter.

Randall has been content to cover the entertainment beat in one capacity or another since 1990.

His beat is film, and the job has placed him in the same room as diverse talents, from Martin Scorsese to Martin Short, from Julie Christie to Julia Styles. He has met three James Bonds (four if you count Woody Allen), and director Russ Meyer once told him: "I like your style."

He really likes his job.

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