(Published in The Sunday Guardian, dated 12 February, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/man-a-beast-at-their-best)
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rating: 4 stars
When War Horse opens to a gentle melody, and a pastoral landscape reminiscent of The Sound of Music, it feels nothing like a film that will lead into and out of war. And it is this sense of something remote and surreal that keeps us compelled through scenes that may otherwise make us squeamish.
The life of a wilful thoroughbred at wartime becomes the palette on which various kinds of relationships are explored – the bond between animal and man, animal and animal, man and man. What would we be to each other, if we were to meet under a different social context?one thinks. And that’s illustrated through set pieces that are nevertheless beautiful and touching – an encounter between enemy soldiers on No Man’s Land, a grandfather trying to honour a memory, boyhood rivals risking their lives to save each other.
Spielberg doesn’t try to escape kitsch – in fact, he celebrates it in yet another film that examines the cruelty and pointlessness of war. You have the eternal optimist, with “not a dollop of sense”, but a stubborn sense of honour. You have the ne’er-do-well, who was once a decorated soldier. You have the gutsy womenfolk, sticking out their necks for their men. And you have the connecting theme: when everyone’s a pawn, what does goodness mean?
However, this film is not so much about war as about how human empathy transcends societal demands. And with an animal and human cast that is thoroughly convincing, nuanced dialogue, and exquisite music, the film guides viewers through the gamut of emotions that beset individuals at war – the morphing of excitement to fear, of daring to disillusionment, of inspiration to despondence.
After intense combat scenes, there is one particular moment that will make you burst out laughing –the poignancy of this situational comic sequence lies in the realisation that all these men are civilians in uniform, after all.
The big downside for me was the use of accents, and as always, Spielberg doesn’t fail to disappoint in this department. Do we really need to hear those stilted “German” accents in English? Wouldn’t we rather have German dialogue with subtitles, or just a regular English accent? Honestly, “gaentlemaan” would sound more authentic in the mouth of a farmer from UP than a soldier from Germany. When the accent is genuine, the lines become difficult to understand.
The Verdict: It’s hard not to like a heart-warming story that goes the way you want it to. And as long as you look at it as a Hollywood masala movie, and not high art, you'll like it. I longed for a paper bag when the final vignette played out, though.