FILM: War Horse

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As of late, Hollywood is obsessed with remakes and franchises. To this end, Steven Spielberg has set himself up for high expectations with War Horse, based on both a children’s book and its remarkably successful stage adaptation. In this case, the gamble has paid off: War Horse is emotional, engaging, and masterful proof that Spielberg can still deliver what will hopefully prove to be an enduring classic.

War Horse follows the journey of Joey, a thoroughbred who is purchased by a stubborn, alcoholic farmer, brilliantly played by Peter Mullan. who owes money to his nefarious landlord (David Thewlis). Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), the farmer’s son, vows to train this unsuitable horse to plow a rocky field. Circumstances, however, lead to Joey being sold to the British army for use in World War I. From here, the horse finds himself in the hands of the English, the German, and the French.

The beauty of War Horse is in how the story unfolds. In the farm scenes, the audience is drawn into the family’s struggle to make ends meet. During the war, we’re led to either feel sympathy for those affected by the conflict (soldiers, civilians, overworked horses) or resentment for those who relish in the violence (officers on the German side, mainly). These chapters are far-ranging, almost retaining the sense of acts in a play, but Joey’s presence is enough of a bond to draw it all together and to make the animal that much more extraordinary. Each owner cannot help but develop a strong bond with the animal, and as we watch, so do we. Most of the film shuns digital effects in favor of real horses, which makes the suffering onscreen that much greater. So too does it make the relief of Joey’s survival that much greater.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve never cried as openly during a movie as I have during War Horse. It has the emotional resonance of watching Black Beauty, Babe, and Old Yeller all at once. Each actor delivers a nuanced, convincing performance, and for as much pain as there is in the film, there are also glimmers of wonderful humor, such as the goose that terrorizes anyone on the Narracott farm. John Williams’ wonderful score is also worth mentioning for being memorable, evocative, and nearly a character in itself. War Horse may be a bit dark for young children, but its message of love and friendship certainly taps into the inner child and stirs it back to the surface.

War Horse opens Christmas Day.

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