A trite portrayal of war, and a horse that (gasp!) can’t act

January 13, 2012, 00:16am

Film
WAR HORSE
Cert: 12A
**

WAR Horse, Stephen Spielberg’s latest, shouldn’t be a film about horses, but it is. As a film, in which a boy’s beloved horse is sold to war and passes through the hands of a series of owners all caught up in war, it did nothing for me. Horses cannot act, they cannot really convey emotion, and even Spielberg can’t create chemistry between them. The theatre production that preceded the movie version was such a hit presumably because it starred humans conveying a story through horse-shaped puppets. Real horses, as it turns out, are bad actors.

As a film about war, War Horse is at turns simplistic and confused in its portrayal of conflict. It shows war as a horrific catastrophe on an epic scale, yet introduces comic turns during scenes in the trenches. I suspect that Spielberg was conscious that the audience this film aims for is a youthful one, and was striving to portray war as both awful and yet somehow approachable for a young audience. The film fails to achieve this balance, and is left see-sawing between levity and gravity. At one point it becomes so gruesome in a scene involving barbed wire, that I felt like leaving the cinema. In other scenes the film exercises well-judged discretion in hiding the act of killing itself but leaving the emotional impact.

The acting is similarly unbalanced. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) is among a group of actors in roles, including Tom Hiddleston (Thor), David Thewlis (Harry Potter), Celine Buckens, and Emily Watson (Red Dragon) who are all brilliantly cast and who are eminently watchable. The central character, however, is played by Jeremy Irvine as the boy, whose performance is weak.

This ought to be a film about love, loss, sacrifice, and the meaningless of conflict. The horses are a device for exploring serious emotions, but here Spielberg has focused too much on the animals themselves. The beautiful cinematography, sweeping and emotional score, excellent costumes effects, and well-designed sets make War Horse easy viewing most of the time. Certainly Spielberg suffers from creating high expectations because there is nothing awful about the film, but the movie is a missed opportunity, and misses the point. Rupert Myers

Film
IN SEARCH OF HAYDN
Cert: 12A
**

After the critically-acclaimed In Search of Mozart and In Search of Beethoven, documentary film-maker Phil Grabsky turns his hand to Austrian composer Joseph Haydn. While Beethoven and Mozart may be better known, they were heavily influenced by Haydn. As Grabsky tracks his extensive career, featuring performances by the world-renowned Endellion String Quartet, as well as interviews with a wide range of experts, he attempts to show that Haydn is, in some ways, equal to those he influenced. From a humble background, the composer’s work ethic and musical simplicity is admirable; his masterpieces excellent. But he just isn’t in the same league as Mozart or Beethoven. Occasional anecdotes aside, his personal life also fails to grip. The film is well executed and diverting, but can’t help lacking the punch of the previous two. Stevie Martin

Film
SHAME
Cert: 18
****

This is a triumphant, unflinching study of the emptiness of sex addiction. Michael Fassbender is Brandon Sullivan, the New York City man with the great job, beautiful apartment and an ability to pick up women before they can say hey, do you need a lift? However, his is a joyless, emotionless existence. A man unaware of his own lack of feeling, from blankly masturbating to blankly watching porn over an upmarket takeaway, it's only when his sister Sissy, (Carey Mulligan), turns up that Brandon is exposed and the shame sets in. Sissy is the warts-and-all embodiment of everything he is not; hysterically begging ex-boyfriends, falling in love with everyone she sleeps with. Her childlike affection is counteracted by Brandon’s inability to connect, manifesting itself in disgust. Director Steve McQueen demonstrates the desperate importance of relationships, as messy, fragile and fractured as they are. SM

Film
THE DARKEST HOUR
Cert: 12A
***

Another forgettable blockbuster featuring people avoiding being vaporized by aliens. This time, a disastrous business trip in Moscow for Sean (Emile Hirsch) and his more intelligent partner (Max Minghella) gets cut short by an extra-terrestrial invasion. After four days barricaded below a nightclub with hot girls and the guy who, earlier that day, stole their business idea, they resurface to find everywhere decimated by aliens. The inconsistencies are as numerous as the invaders. But the real problem comes from how unthreatening the aliens are. Feeding off electricity, they spark light bulbs while floating around the streets, invisible except when, inexplicably, you can see them. It all looks a bit like a British Gas advert. Sadly the film’s finale is also a shambles, full of bewildering decisions, hilarious cliche. If it's intelligently written and gripping action you're after, give this one a miss. SM

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