There is something disturbing about War Horse. Unsurprisingly, I find I was not the first to note the direct influence of John Ford's How Green Was My Valley; early on in the film, the village setting for an auction scene appears to be that monochrome Welsh mining town resurrected. The family home, meanwhile, seems to have reclaimed the hill Scarlett O'Hara was so fond of wandering over. Much of War Horse was filmed on location, and although I've no idea which locations are pre-existent and which studio, there's not really any excuse for the way the actors appear to pop off the backgrounds like cardboard cutouts. None of the locations in War Horse seem particularly real, and while this rankled with me in the early stages, by the end, having choked back some tears so ashamedly I ended up audibly gasping for emotionless air, I came to realise it didn't matter. Or I didn't care.
There often seems to be a critical tendency towards valuing realism in modern cinema above everything else. I would certainly admit that it's something I personally tend towards, although mainly because it's the most straightforward route towards delivering emotional truth (though the best two films from last year, Margaret and Melancholia, take diversely unreal structural and conceptual approaches towards a much greater clarity of emotional truth). At absolutely no point did I find realism or even emotional truth in War Horse, because it isn't there. By being so deliberately - and, though the mounting of it can be a bit shaky, I think it is deliberate - fantastical, War Horse delivers a different kind of cinematic emotionality, one hardly ever projected or indeed aimed at since Hollywood's Golden Age faded over half a century ago. The film gallops past even the most nostalgic of Spielberg's previous films, never achieving the warmth or upholstered buoyancy of his best work, but rolling in the green green grass of Hollywood's fetish for fake English hills and getting a bit of mud in my eye.
|Joey (unconfirmed number of horses) races through No Man's Land|
It never plays as particularly stagy - the camera gets too close, and the shifting connection to the horse as a character gives the whole thing an odd elasticity - and so instead this visible falseness feels antiquated even before Janusz Kaminski floods the final scene in vivid sunset orange. War Horse does explore the darkness of war, using the pressure of the unreal locations to bolster the emotions of particular scenes to the same kind of dramatic pitch of Hollywood's Golden Age - the acting style is larger, more direct (although it could have done without the alarming shots of Joey's bloodshot eye), and the narrative constructs itself in fragments that build up to a variety of dramatic climaxes, each of which sustain piquant emotional pitches.
Two stronger contenders this awards season appropriate similar styles. Hugo, Martin Scorsese's love letter to silent cinema, is compiled in a similar set of climaxing vignettes, although its clockwork MacGuffin and caricatured secondary characters are less supportable in terms of their contribution to any overall narrative thrust or emotional clarity. Like War Horse, Hugo's production design creates a sealed off world, though the snowy enchantment of the edges of this one are less John Ford than Robert Zemeckis. Hugo has to manifest the dreams of its titular character, as well as its farcical chases, inside this world, and combined with the 3D, it sets a flexibility to a world where the narrative is suggesting the problems of restriction for Hugo. Better, in every sense, are the scenes where we flashback to George Melies' studio - shot with less glow and mist, their isolated existence - nothing in the skylines beyond - quietly evokes the magic revolution going on inside the glass walls, without having to visibly romanticise them.
The Artist's Kinograph production studios are similarly shot - no industrialised skyscrapers surrounding the stage hangers and dressing rooms - and its public locales, like the cinemas and residential streets, echo the kind of recreations made for Singin' in the Rain. The most interesting scene from a production design standpoint, though, is the pivotal scene where Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) physically enact the narrative trajectory of their characters - Peppy going upwards, George down. Most of this scene is shot in romantic mid-shot, but, after they part ways, director Michel Hazanavicius cuts to a square long shot of the entire staircase. It looks like an opened dollhouse, with such minute historical detail recreated for this one moment in order to visualise the largess of the movie business and the shifting power within it.
It seems, in a general sense, to be a year of looking back. The Help resurrects and somewhat updates the social issues pictures that were all the rage in the late 1950s and 1960s, while Midnight in Paris is besotted with the liberté and decadence of the Parisian past. War Horse seems to be less en vogue than these similarly nostalgic films because its animal hero is inconsistently characterised, the human surrogates are (excepting Jeremy Irvine, who induced my misty eyes) summarily dismissed with little feeling, and it never digs too deeply into anything. But, finally, I think that's what worked for me. What Spielberg gets right, and what perhaps awards voters want to firmly leave behind, is the rosy pastoral warmth of Hollywood's Golden Age. The free expression of the silent era mined by The Artist and Hugo, a skim away from the sexual liberté of 1920s Paris, mixes nostalgia with the modern relevance we suspect the Academy so desperately desires. War Horse brushes itself down to deliver a certain inescapable emotional claustrophobia, but the dust still lingers on the chisels and hammers the crew left behind, and I'm not sure dirt is in this season. (Except maybe Minny's.)