Sight unseen, many predicted that with Steven Speilberg at the helm, World War I drama “War Horse” was the film to beat for best picture and Meryl Streep the front runner for Best Actress in Phyllida Lloyd’s Margaret Thatcher biopic “The Iron Lady.” At last, in advance of the November 29 New York Film Critics voting, both films are being screened for media and industry alike. The verdict? Yes, they are in contention for awards. “War Horse” will win multiple nominations including best picture and director; it could win the big prize because it boasts the epic scale and scope missing in the race so far. And Streep will vie with Viola Davis for best actress, for channeling Thatcher in a weak biopic that is eerily similar to “J. Edgar,” as an older public figure looks back on their rise to power.
It’s easy to see what Spielberg responded to in the London and New York hit play “War Horse.” To regard the ravages of war–something we have all seen at the movies countless times before–through the eyes of a noble beast, was irresistible. In the theatre, grown men and women weep over this beautiful “miracle horse” and the various folks who look after him, from the Devon farm boy (Jeremy Irvine) who raises the show horse his farmer parents (Peter Mullen and Emily Watson) can’t afford and the British cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) who rides him into battle to various folks on the both sides of the war who either try to kill him or save him. Niels Arestrup (“A Prophet”) is especially effective.
This unabashedly manipulative movie adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis hews closely to the stage play. Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams aim for an old-fashioned emotional style in the classic John Ford mold–some shots are out-and-out homages. The harrowing World War I sequences are more naturalistic in tone. At the Academy screening I attended Friday morning, the emotion in the room was palpable, the applause at the finale enthusiastic. While I would have preferred a less stylized studio glossy aesthetic, nonetheless I wept buckets.
Streep, meanwhile, delivers an extraordinary performance under heavy makeup as the often inspiring Thatcher in a dull and repetitive feminist biopic. In a competitive year, while it’s 29 years since Streep won Best Actress for “Sophie’s Choice,” our finest screen actress may yet again be overlooked in favor of a younger more compelling stage-to-screen performer. This time it’s “Doubt” fellow nominee Davis, who has never won and has all the good will for “The Help” behind her.