Thursday, February 02, 2012

WAR HORSE - Touching Tale of Joey

WAR HORSE (adventure)
Cast: Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Kebbell
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis, based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo and the play by Nick Stafford
Time: 145 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)

Jeremy Irvine and Joey

PREAMBLE: War Horse is Spielberg's tale about an equine named Joey and its adventures in Europe during World War 1. Adapted from a children's book by Michael Morpurgo, the story is told from the point of view of the horse, how it touches the lives of the people it encounters, and sometimes brings out the best in these humans.

It is not about the horrors of the war, as some critics have griped about.

Celine Buckens and Joey

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? Joey, a horse born and bred in Devon, is owned by Albert (Jeremy Irvine); his father, Ted (Peter Mullan); and his mother, Rose (Emily Watson). When their landlord (David Thewlis) threatens to foreclose on the farm unless the rent is paid, Ted is forced to sell Joey to army major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch), who rides it into the early battles of World War I.

After Stewart is killed in action, Joey is taken by the Germans. Over the next few years, he ends up pulling ambulances and gun wagons, and being the pet of a lonely French peasant girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). When Albert is old enough to join the British army, he starts looking among the front lines for his beloved Joey.

HITS & MISSES: After suffering scenes of brutal violence in movies like 300 and Conan The Barbarian, I am thankful that Spielberg has left out the gory details of the war. Touching on the surface of it - the muddy and murky life in the trenches and the barbed wires - is enough for us to picture how bad the war was. Spielberg, however, chooses to concentrate on the good side: how Joey's tenacity and courage bring out qualities like courage, compassion and charity in the humans it touches. This is especially true in the No-Man's Land sequences.

Part of the heartwarming tale includes Joey's friendship with a black horse. Yes, it is old-fashioned story-telling (without computer-generated wizardry) and it is unabashedly sentimental (bring more tissues) but it is mainly for the family. Joey's story is told in vignettes, starting from its birthplace in scenic Devon. Then, as a cavalry mount of a British officer, we see how swiftly the status of the mighty war horses becomes obsolete with the invention of machine guns, cannons and trench warfare. Another scene of a horse being 'cornered' in an alley by a tank also shows how vulnerable horses have become in the 'new' era.

Among the flaws in the movie is the lack of character development of the humans, especially of Albert. This in turn diminishes the emotional kick that should have come at the climax. Still, Spielberg ends the movie with the conventional sunset scene of cowboy movies, but instead of riding into the sunset, he shows a horse galloping from it. A promise of a new age for equines, perhaps?

THE LOWDOWN: A touching tale not just for animal lovers.


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