'War Horse' shows stark horrors of battle

The posters and trailers for Steven Spielberg's recent film, 'War Horse," give the impression that it follows a familiar Hollywood template, one that explores a young person's transformative connection to an animal, in this case a magnificent horse.

And the narrative does begin in bucolic Devon, England, just before World War I. We're introduced to Albert Narrocot (Jeremy Irvine), a mid-teen who is captivated by a neighbor's young colt. Against all odds, his father, Ted (Peter Mullan), a tenant farmer and a bit of an alcoholic, comes home one afternoon with the colt, now almost grown.

And so the bond is established. Albert names the horse Joey, and together they explore the stretching farmlands surrounding Devon.

When England declares war against Germany, the army searches the countryside for horses to fill the ranks of its expanding cavalry. In dire need of cash for the farm, Ted sells Joey to a young captain (David Thewlis) and Albert, anguished, watches his much-loved horse led away.

That moment, however wrenching, doesn't begin to convey what lies ahead. The essence of "War Horse" is captured on a seemingly benign day, in an open field. Cavalry soldiers, mounted, resplendent in their tailored uniforms, stand ready to assault a German encampment. With swords drawn, they ride forward, past the enemies' pitched tents, past the surprised Germans, toward the tree line. And it is there that they cross from the 19th century into the 20th and the withering fire of German machine guns. All we see are those glorious horses, now riderless, galloping into the forest. It's a horrible and transcendent moment — the fantasy of war, with all its regalia, its splendid preparation, the enthusiastic approbation of those who waved goodbye, stripped away and revealing something terribly final.

And with that stunning image, and all that follows, it becomes evident that "War Horse" is not "National Velvet" or "The Black Stallion" or "The Red Pony." "War Horse" is an anti-war film, thematically following Spielberg's "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan."

He takes what appears to be a simple fable and superimposes it on one of the most brutal and hapless wars ever waged, using all of his remarkable skills as a filmmaker to portray a collective insanity called war.

In stark relief to the carnage and horror is this stunning horse, Joey, whose journey takes him from a farm in Devon to his English lieutenant, from the Germans to a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter, and finally back to Albert who has enlisted with the singular purpose of finding him. It is a harrowing journey for both of them.

"War Horse" is many things; it is not, however, a children's film. While there is redemption to be found in the reunion of Albert and Joey, there is no redemption for those who created the ballet of brutality called WWI. And whatever innocence is offered in the long opening set up to the film, that innocence is all but destroyed by the stark reality of the grim trenches filled with those who are about to die.

My Week With Marilyn

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, "Fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name." And there find the essence of "My Week With Marilyn."

It wasn't Norma Jean Baker that we saw behind those oversized sunglasses and white scarf, but rather a fantasy named Marilyn, as much a fiction as the characters she portrayed.

How to explain our collective need to elevate an individual to celestial status, our desire to embrace a shimmering image, a facade, as insubstantial as the morning mist and not the person.

What Michelle Williams captures seamlessly, in a tour de force performance, is the internecine war that Norma Jean waged all of her life with Marilyn. Williams' portrayal is a stunning character study, deeply nuanced, requiring her to inhabit a woman whose personal story was simultaneously alluring and tragic and prescient.

And the camera loves Williams, her hair deeply platinum, her lips perpetually forming a come-hither pout, her insecurities and vulnerabilities barely hidden beneath a patina of glamour, ever in search of an adoration that never seemed quite enough.

The narrative is quite simple, really. Based on a memoir by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), it recounts one week in 1956 when this young scion to a wealthy London family worked as the third assistant director to Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who was intent on working with Monroe.

Clark, the set's go-for, also was given the job of keeping an eye on the mercurial actress. He spends one day in particular with her when they escape from Pinewood Studios and the demands of the set. That day offers some of the best and most poignant scenes in a fine and revelatory film.

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