Saturday 14 January 2012

Flog It!: On "War Horse" and the Long, Slow Demise of the Movie Brats

In 1966, the French director Robert Bresson made Au Hasard Balthazar, an allegorical drama in which the centre of each frame was occupied by an impassive donkey. Balthazar passed from one owner or guardian to the next, some caring, others ruthless and brutal in the way they came to exploit the poor creature; he could just be a donkey, or he could be a stand-in for Man himself. Staged without music, and with Bresson's usual stripped-back aesthetic, Au Hasard Balthazar remains one of the great, legitimate weepies in all cinema, because it never stoops to beg for our tears: the donkey is as inexpressive a performer as the non-professionals gathered around him.

Steven Spielberg's latest War Horse is the lavish, phoney, Disney version of Balthazar, playing out first on rolling, verdant, sundappled countryside to the accompaniment of a John Williams score that never once lets us stop to think for ourselves, before giving way to close-ups that take every possible care to inform us whether its central quadripeds are frightened, happy or sad. It began life as a novel by Michael Morpurgo dramatising the Great War's effects on both man and beast, but the title only caught Spielberg's eye when attached to an acclaimed and successful stage adaptation accomplished with the aid of puppets; according to the play's admirers, it not only left the viewer admiring the considerable craft and skill involved, but obliged them to conjure up many of Morpurgo's bleakest images of conflict and loss for themselves - you had to put the flesh on the all the strings, pulleys and levers yourself.

Spielberg's greatly less imaginative version conceives it as straight, flat live-action, employing a number of actual horses in the title role, and immediately turning the movie into a My Friend Flicka variant, complete with a moptopped stable lad (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) who trains his pet stallion to plough fields and eat oats from his hand just by whistling at him, and later proves inconsolable when dear Joey is whisked off to war. The softening of the material - from borderline avant-garde marionette sensation to unashamed multiplex tearjerker - is everywhere you look, but never more so than in its human personnel. Peter Mullan - yes, the Peter Mullan who spent much of last year's Tyrannosaur kicking dogs to death with his bare feet - is recast as a tiddly, twinkly-eyed Devon farmer who, in a particular lowpoint, is menaced by a goose and somehow resists the temptation to turn it into foie gras.

He's not alone: A Prophet's terrifying Niels Arestrup becomes a wise old greybeard who apparently sublets Shrek's cottage in the woods with an ooh-la-la-ing granddaughter who spends her every waking hour making jam: the literal sucrose content in these scenes is alone enough to make it compulsory for the film to carry a "not suitable for diabetics" warning. Meanwhile, Eddie Marsan - Tyrannosaur's other homewrecker - lucks out in turning up during the almost reassuringly corny home straight as a benign Army sergeant, but still has to utter such things as "But it's the lad's horse, sir! From Devon!", lines no actor would surely want to speak unless it afforded them the opportunity to work, even for a day or two, with The Great Spielberg.

I believe - and this is going to get me kicked off the Empire mailing list once and for all - that we might now usefully question that greatness. One factor in the American cinema's present crisis is that those filmmakers who revolutionised the mainstream in the 1970s, 80s and 90s - Spielberg, Scorsese, Allen, Eastwood, Lucas - would appear to be in a state of irreversible creative decline, heading into their dotage in a state of unparalleled economic comfort that leaves them insulated from the rest of the world, and with nothing in particular to say anymore, their earlier Big Themes having long been stripmined over a privileged three decades' worth of consistent employment. (Telling that the most vital of the 70s "moviebrats" now look like Malick, Friedkin, possibly Coppola - directors who either didn't work for long periods, or who suffered catastophic losses at a crucial moment in their careers.)

That part of the mainstream that isn't dictated to by the whims of teenage boys has thus gone soft on us, drifting into senility (as in Eastwood's monumentally batty Hereafter, less a movie than an extended senior moment) or the nostalgia films like War Horse, Hugo and Midnight in Paris collectively represent. The Spielberg set have no valid artistic reasons to continue making films, save to keep themselves busy, and possibly set a little more aside for their grandchildren's college funds, and - judging by the American box-office performance of Tintin and Hugo, in particular - I wonder whether even those audiences that embraced the idea of "a Steven Spielberg film" or "a Martin Scorsese picture" are starting to question whether this is really enough to get them into a cinema.

War Horse, like Hugo and Tintin, is another of those scripts taken on by a director for the sole reason that it chimes with his particular brand, and may just extend it a while longer. All these films treat history like the mosquitoes trapped under amber in Jurassic Park - as something from which potentially lucrative, family-friendly thrills can be extracted - and while they offer undeniable technical facility and well-choreographed spectacle (Hugo's tridvid descent into the Gare Montparnasse, War Horse's numerous cavalry charges), increasingly backed up by the most photorealistic CGI money can buy, there's practically no passion running through their veins. They're the work of directors going through the motions, like an oldtimer heading to the lavatory after their second coffee of the morning; Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood and Allen have come to squat behind the camera, because that's where they've always gone.

I'd call this work ethic admirable for men in their sixties, seventies and eighties - not for the first time, Spielberg has signed off on two films within the same calendar year, one geared to shilling popcorn, the other all but waving down awards committees in the street - were the films themselves not so fundamentally tepid. Perhaps we'd be hoping for too much for Spielberg to top his 93-94 triumph of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, a no-ifs, no-buts demonstration of a populist storyteller working at the very height of his game; perhaps we'd have been better off expecting something closer to 05-06's patchily inspired War of the Worlds/Munich combo. But no: for the first time in the director's career, one dud has followed hard on the heels of another.

War Horse may be marginally preferable to Tintin - an exercise in button-pushing that really could have been directed by anyone - in that it has a certain Fordian grandeur, albeit late Ford, which means lots of low-angle shots of characters coming over (studio reconstructed) hills in front of back-projected skies while the music swells and more suggestible members of the audience reach for their hankies. Yet these second-hand images are wedded to a frankly awful Lee Hall-Richard Curtis script that apes the episodic non-structure of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers without a single iota of those projects' visceral heft (12A, you see: nothing to frighten the kiddies or horses, not even when we get to the Somme), while forcing the actors into declamations that come across as stiff even for 1914.

Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch struggle with officer-class caricatures who inadvertently make Hugh Laurie's Lieutenant George in Blackadder Goes Forth (a previous Curtis enterprise, of course) seem deadly serious, so a wetnose like Irvine - directed simply to look awestruck at the horse, and terrified at the War - stands no chance. At best, War Horse, like Hugo before it, might be approached as a teaching aid, intended to school younger audiences in the more PG-rated horrors of the Great War (the rats, the gas, the barbed wire); it wouldn't surprise me if it wrung a few tears from tweenage girls who hadn't heard of Ypres and desperately wanted daddy to buy them a horse like Joey for Christmas. But the word sappy barely begins to cover it: compared to the view of nature and Man's wanton destructiveness offered by Malick in The Tree of Life, War Horse might as well be a My Little Pony cartoon.

War Horse is on nationwide release.

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