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After so many movies set against the backdrop of World War II, Steven Spielberg now turns to the First World War for his latest fulmination on the mad brutality of war. But the madness is only conveyed successfully in a couple of sequences in this overlong film that tracks the war through one horse’s experience of it. Spectacularly gorgeous to look at (cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, production design by Rick Carter), War Horse skimps on its dramatic pull, notwithstanding the forcefully manipulative score by Spielberg regular John Williams.
Based on a popular 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse affords young viewers the opportunity to see war through the horse Joey’s perspective. Raised on an English farm, Joey is sold into war in 1914 and has many a harrowing experience on the Western front. The book was also adapted for the theatre in a show that substituted elaborate puppetry for actual horses – a feat that was recognized with a Tony Award. Cinephiles are likely to reflect on Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Balthazar, in which the desultory drudgery of existence is seen through the point of view of the donkey Balthazar. It is one of the great works of cinema, and War Horse invites inevitable comparisons, which is unfortunate because they will make the Spielberg film look sadly inert.
A horse is a horse (of course, of course), and it might be said that the folly of War Horse is its expectation of emotional resonance to derive from a fairly expressionless equine visage. Yet few of the human characters make strong impressions either. Only Niels Arestrup as the jam maker who gives shelter to Joey for the joy the horse brings his orphaned granddaughter creates a character whose depth of feeling seems cut from the bone.
The film’s visual style is a throwback to classic studio movies: epic in composition, drenched in widescreen vistas, and framed by bold background colors. Spielberg’s typically emotive storytelling only comes to the fore in a few of the film’s pivotal action scenes, a couple of which are truly spectacular and remind us only all too well of what this film might have been. Two of them are battle scenes which, despite being bloodless, are powerfully wrenching and a keen reminder of what Spielberg is capable of accomplishing. But the overlong War Horse mostly passes as though Spielberg were in absentia. (Opens Sunday.)