Spielberg Rams It Home: War Horse

12/21/2011 4:00 AM |

War Horse
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Mere days after the release of the amusingly headlong boys’ adventure Tintin, Steven Spielberg mounts a return to another form—the multiple-hankie war epic, in which a corps of characters demonstrate their humble nobility under trying circumstances—to less impressive effect. War Horse, adapted from a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo (also the source of a well-regarded recent play, still running at Lincoln Center), gets out of the gate amid the rolling hills of Devon, as Albert (Jeremy Irvine) runs free with Joey (14 different horses), a thoroughbred his bush-bearded father, Ted (Peter Mullan, clutching a flask, as per usual), overpaid for at auction. The sweeping camerawork, by longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski, masterfully conveys the unbridled muscularity of the animal; John Williams’s score establishes the film’s earnest emotional ballast. Here, all God’s creatures (excepting the more zealous members of the German military leadership, and a strictly comic-relief goose) draw from the same well of empathy, which is fathomlessly deep: Soon after Ted’s winning bid on Joey puts the family farm in jeopardy, his wife (Emily Watson) shows their son a trove of his father’s medals from the Boer War, appreciating that his bravery is what drives him to drink.

The pastoral ends abruptly at the outbreak of World War I, when Ted sells the horse to the army; Albert’s heartbreak hangs over the rest of the film. A spectrally polite captain (Tom Hiddleston) rides Joey straight into machine-gun fire, but the horse trudges on through battlefields pocked with mud puddles, touching the lives of Europeans of various allegiances (including Niels Arestrup’s farmhouse grandfather). You never for a second forget the symbolic cargo Joey’s been saddled with, even as he’s galloping through a tonally unstable version of the Great War, with its sometimes conflicting duties to pop-up-book simplicity and baseline historical accuracy. In other words, Spielberg rams it home. This is the populist we know, but not the one we love.

Opens December 25