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Movie Review: War Horse

'War Horse' rides partway to glory
War Horse
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 146 min
Release Date: 2011-12-25
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

For certain movies, the adjectives “formulaic” and “predictable” are complimentary. “War Horse” is one of them.

Writers Lee Hall and Richard Curtis and director Steven Spielberg know that art aimed at young adults has to mix fantasy and reality and wish fulfillment and coincidence and cycles that come around to their starting points. They realize that, however harsh or brutal life can become in these stories, hope must never be crushed: We can visit the dark side of the human psyche but cannot stay there permanently.

That’s why “War Horse” works well, though it has just one surprise in two and a half hours. You know that, when Devon farm boy Albert creates a special whistle to which the steed Joey will respond, that whistle will unite them before the end. When a character in danger exults “We made it! We made it!” there’s a 100 percent chance he hasn’t.

Spielberg also has to fight his tendency to be so literal: When someone washes the mud-caked Joey to identify him by his white stockings, we have to see each leg cleaned, one after the other, to get the point. Yet he and the authors tell their story expertly enough within the confines of the genre to win us at last.

For all the shots that make the Devon farm seem like Scarlett O’Hara’s land at sunset, we get horrific sequences in which men and mounts plunge madly through No Man’s Land. Albert (Jeremy Irvine) may be an impossibly cute guy whose face and hands show he’s never done a day of work. Yet by the time he enlists to find Joey at the front, Irvine has enough gravity to make us aware that Albert will carry scars throughout his life no one will see.

“War Horse” began in 1982 as a young adult novel by British author Michael Morpurgo, who depicted the terrors of World War I through the eyes of a farm horse drafted to serve on the battlefield. The movie synthesizes that book and the acclaimed play taken from it, which won the Tony for best drama this year.

Think of it as “Black Beauty” with bullets: Joey passes through the hands of many owners, some benign and some brutal, on both sides of the conflict before the finale.

He faces dangers that would kill virtually any horse, whether pulling massive artillery to a hilltop or bursting wildly through barbed wire. (That’s the cover-your-eyes scene; the bloodless battles between humans, well shot though they are, don’t have nearly the same impact.)

Spielberg and his writers neither demonize the Germans nor canonize the British, and the most touching scene involves a moment of cross-cultural cooperation before hostilities resume. (This was the last war where such behavior was thinkable, partly because both armies realized World War I was unusually pointless: It was the result of the assassination of a minor royal and the domino effect of treaties that forced combatants in on both sides.)

Spielberg went out of his way to cast against type, giving sympathetic parts to actors who frequently play villains: Niels Arestrup as a tolerant grandfather, Liam Cunningham as a surgeon willing to act as a vet, Peter Mullan as Albert’s alcoholic but hard-working dad, Tom Hiddleston as a kindly captain, Eddie Marsan as a sturdy sergeant. (Emily Watson, who plays Albert’s tough but understanding mother, is wasted in the one significant female role.)

The best actor stands 17 hands high: The horse playing Joey is responsive and emotive, whether frisking or falling. In the end, for all the focus on humans, the tragedy remains his. Joey never volunteered to swim in the blood and muck of the Somme, and he doesn’t realize the absurdity of his situation. Our hearts go out to him without reserve.

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12/19/2011 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

Adventures of a horse, from his youth on a British farm through four years of World War I. Moving, thought virtually without surprises.

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