Magazine article Times Higher Education

A Richer Dust Concealed

Magazine article Times Higher Education

A Richer Dust Concealed

Article excerpt

The wonder of a heroic wartime tale is lost in Steven Spielberg's cinematic landscape, says Will Brooker.

War Horse

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine and Benedict Cumberbatch

Released in the UK on 13 January

Nobody who has witnessed the National Theatre adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel War Horse will forget the moment when Joey the foal transforms into his adult, stallion self: the parts of the first puppet burst apart and a life-size beast gallops on to the stage, his handlers almost invisible.

Spielberg's film production has no direct equivalent, and in casting real horses as Joey, it chooses to sacrifice both the play's most staggering illusion, that a puppet could convince as a living, breathing animal, and the book's underpinning achievement of using Joey as narrator. What it offers instead are characteristic images of intensely cinematic visual power, rather than the play's stunning coup de theatre or the novel's sustained first-person voice. Spielberg's magic is in the attention to visual detail: the close-up on a juddering glass of water as a Tyrannosaurus approaches in Jurassic Park (1993) or the nail edging out of the slave ship's wooden deck in Amistad (1997). War Horse adds to the director's compendium of best-of clips, but there is no single transformative spectacle here; no startling reveal in the translation from one medium to another, and perhaps no justification for yet another version of the story.

The first fine shot comes in the film's opening act, and pulls it up just in time from a soporific, downward slide. We fly over the Devon countryside, and light spreads like butter over fields as characters tell us, in heavily steeped accents, what they already know, while John Williams' score instructs us how to feel. Yet just when War Horse threatens to become a full-length version of the 1970s BBC television drama Follyfoot or a live-action adaptation of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, a close-up of the brown, woollen corrugations in a piece of crocheting merges perfectly into a long shot of a ploughed field, and we're off.

The story is structured into sections, and images of this kind punctuate each act, lifting our attention just when the film threatens to sink into generic convention. Spielberg shows us little of war that we have not seen before in previous movie conflicts - from Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989) to Atonement (1997) - all of which struggle through the same slow-motion mud. …

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