Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
Has there been a movie with this kind of pure emotional sweep and gathering power since The Shawshank Redemption?
I ask because after experiencing War Horse with two different audiences, I simply can't recall a movie that feels as inspiring to discover and which contains as much magnanimity, grace, moments that make you shiver as well as reserves of deep humility and gratitude. That's the highest compliment I can pay Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the long-running and popular New York and London stage show which arrives in theaters this holiday season as a sprawling and tender epic-adventure. Like Shawshank, War Horse pays homage to the golden age of Hollywood stories that have broad appeal, universal themes, and an epic feel.
This is Spielberg in top form.
It's 1912 in the southwestern county of Devon, England. The horse is named Joey, a thoroughbred purchased foolishly at auction by the drunken patriarch of the Narracott family, Ted (Peter Mullan). Their family farm needs a cheap but effective plowing horse, not a racing one, but Ted's a proud working-class bloke who doesn't back down in a bidding match against the family's starchy landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis).
But oh, what a fine specimen Joey is, clay-brown and sleek with a headstrong stubbornness in his character. It's love-at-first-sight for Ted's adolescent son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who urges mother Rose (Emily Watson) to let the family keep the horse on a promise that he'll train Joey to plow their field.
Joey and Albert bond and develop a respect for each other. Joey learns to accept a saddle and gear, as well as basic commands involving eating, moving and stopping. But his breed is ill-suited for plowing and the progress on that front is slow.
Late on their farm's rent, the family is forced to accept a deadline by Lyons to show that Joey can get the work done so the family can grow crops and pay their debt, or else. This leads to the first big "shiver moment"
as Lyons and most of the townspeople (who in comic fashion seem to pour out from over the horizon) gather at the Narracott farm on the big day to see if the family will lose it all. Rose can't take the shame of failure and hides indoors, distracting herself with her knitting while Ted sits sullen and mute outside, condescended to by Lyons.
The tension is unbearable. Albert tries and tries with Joey, but defeat appears certain. But just then the music swells and we're given our first unabashedly uplifting moment in a movie that is comfortable with emotion.
A short while later, England finds herself in WWI against the Germans with Ted selling Joey to the military despite the tearful pleas of Albert. But have no fear, insists Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) to the boy: he'll be happy to return Joey at the conclusion of the war.
From that point on we follow Joey and those who find themselves either owning or taking care of him, from Capt. Nicholls and the British, onto the Germans, a respite for a short while with an old French man and his granddaughter, and then back into German hands again having to pull large pieces of military machinery.
In another wink to the audience in the tried and true old-Hollywood tradition, every character in the film speaks English but can be told apart by the flavor of their accent.
War Horse isn't a war movie so much as it is an epic, humanist drama with WWI as the backdrop to a remarkable and totally improbable story involving a miraculous horse we root for and come to love because of its plucky persistence and enduring spirit. Life is indifferent to Joey but he's not indifferent to it.
If Joey is our idealized hero by virtue of being a noble beast who never tires, the movie looks upon humans with a more level gaze, regarding our conflicted and often contradicting species. Those who encounter Joey share the same respect and love for him, though often he is used as a tool or a weapon of war.
War Horse is equal parts E.T. Spielberg in the connection between Albert and Joey, as well as Saving Private Ryan Spielberg in two rather brutal and physical action sequences, the latter an amazing set piece meant to represent a no-man's-land in the war zone where Joey becomes ensnared in a mangle of barbed-wire fence. It's a heart-wrenching and painful sequence in a movie that older kids could stomach, but maybe not those under the age of about 9.
There will be the usual cynics who complain that War Horse is too sentimental or manipulative, but they're saying something about themselves and not this movie because the tears it earns from its audience are well-deserved, in a movie that plateaus right up to that glorious iconic final shot.
With Martin Scorsese's dazzler Hugo from last month and now Spielberg's War Horse, our two most powerful directors of the last 40 years reaffirm once again their mad love affairs with the movies, both of them charging on through the times like a raging bull or a racing Joey, wearing their hearts on their sleeve instead of caving into the cynicism of our modern age of ironic detachment.
Take someone you love, bring a box of kleenex, and get swept up in War Horse. You'll hug yourselves afterwards.