The onscreen telling moves beyond friendship to reveal a bonding between a boy and his horse. Adapted from the 1982 saga of love, loyalty and redemption, the novel became a classic, finding an eager readership amongst children as well as adults. Having read the narrative following a recent sit down conversation with author Michael Morpurgo, I confess to being enthralled and emotionally touched by Morpurgo’s story.
A renewed interest in the book has been spurred by the highly praised, multi-award winnning stage production from Britain’s National Theatre. The resourceful theatre company has enhanced its presentation using life-size horse puppets (three puppeteers manipulate each one.) This theatrical device dramatically injects realism into the play now in its third year on London’s West End. The Broadway transfer has been playing to sold out houses approaching its first anniversary, while the Toronto opening (Mirvish Productions) is scheduled for mid-February. Interest is high, and the limited run has already been extended to June, 2012.
Steven Spielberg attended three London performances, was “absolutely fascinated” and grabbed the screen rights. The director was intrigued by the close relationship between a hum and animal and their encounter with destiny. The novel’s narrated in the first person by “Joey” the horse, while onscreen events unfold from the viewpoint of the human characters.
The beautifully composed picture brings a robust physicality to the source material, conveying the brutality of war and one steed’s dramatic journey. On the verge of World War I, a struggling English farming family buys a fiery hunter colt at auction despite not having the funds to pay for him. The horse seems to be nothing but a loss for the farmer and his wife. However their son Albert is determined to tame and train him, making the most of the thoroughbred’s (now named Joey) enthralling spirit, speed and affection. The two are inseperable, but when war breaks out, they are pulled apart as Joey is sold from under him and heads to the front as a mount of a dashing British cavalry officer.
This stars Joey on a challenging trek through joy and sorrow, hardship and wonders, as this simple horse becomes a remarkable hero, touching lives on all sides of the war with his innocence and unconditional devotion to his human friends. Joey pulls battlefield ambulances, whisks away German soldiers on the run, fires the imagination of a French girl and hauls colossal cannons over battlefield hills.
Attempting to reunite with his four-legged friend, Albert has enlisted (by lying about his age,) and heads into the trenches. Meanwhile Joey has wandered into the perilous no man’s land between the British and German front lines. Sequences here are graphic and unsettling (especially for youngster,) but sets up an unexpected situation which could possibly become the basis for possible peace as well as fostering a dream of reunion and renewal.
With “War Horse,” fans will appreciate the blend of childhood yearning and adult grief that has become a constant in Spielberg’s films. This two-and-a-half hour Great War saga with an equine hero is a grueling tale of man’s inhumanity to man (and also to horse,) and doesn’t veer too much into sweetly sentimental territory. I admire the film’s impeccable antiwar message and the skillful care and overall restraint with which Spielberg sends the message without being preachy. The film plays a bittersweet lament on emotion while entertaining the senses.
The film has been nominated for excellence in various categories by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes) as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars.)
If you missed it in the Theatre, “The Help” is now on DVD. The source book, as well as the movie has become a social phenomenon. Spurred by word of mouth from readers and savvy promotional marketing, the screen adaptation has found a cult audience, which has drawn movie-goers to further explore a murky history of racial inequality in America. While familiar with the disturbing landscape of the profoundly segregated and hierarchical Deep South of the Jim Crow era during the 1960s, here in our home country, Canadians share a sense of depression as we look across the border at the on-going dust-up between black and while cultures.
My emotions stimulated by the film, I was compelled to purchase the best-seller (usually I read the story first,) and was caught up once again in the events on the printed page. I was particularly intrigued by author Kathryn Stockett’s use of the black patois spoken by the titled “help.”
It an admirable transfer to the big screen encapsulating the time and place in untarnished detail. Don’t be surprise that your senses are shaken by the narrative in which extraordinary women of color are locked in a life of servitude to white families of Jackson Mississippi. The story stirs memories of similar screenplays, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Mississippi Burning,” and “Driving Miss Daisy” among them.
Though the subject of race is difficult, bubbles of optimism rise at the uplifting tenacity of the characters trying to maintain dignity while mired in the rubble of their low caste circumstances. The film is upbeat with sarcastic humor, blending entertainment with a mind-set that is contemporary while avoiding smugness about the pre civil rights turbulence.
Skeeter Phelan, a free spirit trying to establish herself as a writer upsets Jackson society by convincing local black maids to tell her their stories. A major New York publisher has somewhat reluctantly committed to publish the collection stories in book form, provided all details about forced segregation faced daily by “the help” are documented.
Skeeter and the maids are resourceful in secret collaboration fearing the wrath of their white employers. Emma Stone unveils stunning talent portraying Skeeter, but my attention was equally captured by Bryce Dallas Howard (director/actor Ron Howard’s daughter) as Skeeter’s adversary Hilly Holbrook. She’s a cold, insecure, unhappy socialite, passionate about the white folks’ “rights” of supremacy and segregation.
The film’s major strength is derived from performances of two character actresses who quietly, yet with loud resonance seize the essence of events. Viola Davis, a recent best actress Oscar nominee, plays Aibileen, an exhausted domestic just trying to cope with tragic events that have blighted her life. It’s a back-up role, but Davis packs it with enormous self esteem.
Octavia Spencer (a lesser know actress, with glowing screen talent and presence,) plays Aibileen’s friend Minny, a feisty maid who step way beyond the line is wreaking havoc on her employer who has sacked her. Revenge is swift, terrible and totally unexpected.
“The Help” isn’t typical Hollywood fair, thank goodness. It’s a quality film spreading bittersweet poignancy with life affirming emotions. It has been honored with numerous award nominations by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes) as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars).
The film is available for the home screen with bonus background footage on Blu-ray, combo pack, DVD and digital download on-demand.