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Blu-ray Review: WAR HORSE

Joshua Brunsting

April 10th, 2012

The trailer for WAR HORSE debuts

No one does sentimental quite like the king of that adjective, Steven Spielberg.  Making a career out of Capra-esque emotion mongering, Spielberg has become one of the most iconic directors of his generation, and arguably one of the most influential filmmakers ever to pick up a camera. However, even he can make a film that seems to leave the viewing audience, and even critics, rather cold, no matter how warm his filmmaking may truly be.

That film was last year’s WAR HORSE.  One of two films hitting theaters in the span of a week from the director (along with THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN), the film was found with very little love, with critics calling it overtly sentimental, overly stylized and pretentiously classical.  However, the critics and audiences finding this film oozing melodrama are both correct, and yet bizarrely off in deciding that that is a flaw of this stunningly moving and gloriously shot bit of classic filmmaking.

Telling the story of Albert, the film follows the young man as he enlists in WWI after having his horse commandeered by the Army hoping to save Joey from the doom that is so utterly pending. Going from owner to owner, WAR HORSE is more the tale of Joey, a horse who is much bigger than any colt may be.  Similar in narrative to a film like Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, the film is a loving ode to John Ford style classicism and the rustic filmmaking aesthetic of decades past.  It’s also just one of the most affecting pieces of filmmaking from just one year ago, and is now available on glorious Blu-ray.

Cinematically, the film could not be more stunning.  Featuring fantastic cinematography from DP Janusz Kaminski, WAR HORSE is a visual  wonder harkening back to classic Westerns from nearly half a century ago.  John Williams is at his usual best here with the score for this picture, pairing oddly well with his crackerjack score for the other Spielberg feature that shall not be named here, from 2011. It’s a thematic score, more so than his TINTIN masterpiece, but it fits the type of broad epic narrative that it is so beautifully set up against.

Director Spielberg is at his very best here.  Giving us a cavalcade of classic set pieces and crowd pleasing moments of true humanism, we even get his patented “Spielberg Face” a handful of times. However, the main fault of the film is sorely put directly into his hands. For the first hour or so, WAR HORSE is an intimate look into a family who put literally every single thing that they own directly upon a horse that they bought and its abilities to plow their land.  The stakes couldn’t be higher:  the horse plows the yard or they lose everything. And then the war hits, and then we are given a Bressonian travelogue that is, while engaging, somewhat poorly plotted and bluntly saccharine.  Not a poor conclusion, the final act and a half is just so tonally different from the first half that it can’t help but feel off.

It does help, however, to have such a damn good cast assembled.  Jeremy Irvine has a star making turn here as Albert, a performance that is so brilliantly played through his physicality that it is shocking.  The pair of Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, Albert’s dad and mum, hold the film down to a level of realism so true that you can’t help but feel as though the first act or so of this film is one of the best pieces of cinema you’ve seen in quite some time.  Their family dynamic is so true and real that it is truly breathtaking.  Toss in a supporting cast including Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch and the star of the supporting cast, the beautiful youngster Celine Buckens, and you have a final act that while troublesome, is saved by some of the most engaging and moving performances that 2011 had to offer.

WAR HORSE has gotten a Blu-ray worth dying for. Coming in various forms, the release you’ll want to pick up is the behemoth four disc edition, coming with Blu-ray, DVD and digital versions of the film. The first disc features the HD version of the film, as well as a look into the experience shooting the film from an extra’s point of view, as well as an all too brief roundtable discussion with the cast and crew of the film.  The second disc holds a cavalcade of intriguing supplements, including a look into the score and editing of the film, a great making of documentary, a look into the sound design and a discussion with producer Kathleen Kennedy. Finally there is a DVD version of the film, and a fourth disc holding a digital copy. Overall this is a packed Blu-ray release, featuring a glorious soundtrack and visual transfer, all for one of 2011’s most moving features.  It’s an absolute must-own.

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