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The Horse Whisperer

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Sam Neill, Scarlet Johansson, Dianne Wiest, Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones, Ty Hillman, Catherine Bosworth, Jeanette Nolan

Review by Walter Frith
4 stars out of 4

When Robert Redford won the Academy award for his direction of 'Ordinary People' in 1980, I was surprised. Not because of any lacking talent on Redford's part, because his nurturing of each character in that film was nothing short of brilliant. What surprised me was that the director's branch of the Academy would actually choose someone who primarily stood out as an actor. I suppose if you count 1948's 'Hamlet' in which Laurence Olivier starred and also directed, it would not be something entirely new because for that film, Olivier was nominated for directing himself and the other actors and scored the Oscar prize for his performance in that film and in the last several years, in 1990, 1992, and 1995, we have seen actors such as Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson all come away with the Academy Award as Best Director for directing themselves in their films. Redford has now directed himself. Surprisingly, in all of Redford's other films, 'Ordinary People', 'The Milagro Beanfield War', and 'Quiz Show', Redford has been absent in front of the camera.

In 'The Horse Whisperer', Redford stars as an expert horseman who runs a ranch in Montana and is contacted by a New York City magazine editor (Kristin Scott Thomas) for some help in dealing with an injured horse and the trauma of her thirteen year old daughter (Scarlett Johansson) who has lost half of her right leg in a horrible riding accident. Redford senses by the telephone conversation he's having with Thomas that there isn't much he can do to help her and he hangs up on her rather abruptly but not rudely and she is determined to seek help for her daughter. She travels from NYC to Montana with her daughter (who rides in the back seat) and the horse is transported in a hitched trailer. The daughter is not only bitter about her situation but by the loss of her friend's life in the accident and by her naive certainty that her mother is just doing this for her own selfish benefit and believes her mother cares little for her injuries or for the horse.

Their arrival in Montana is somewhat awkward as Redford is not expecting them and Thomas doesn't know what to expect from him. Upon seeing the horse for the first time, Redford's keen instinct and feel for the animal give the film its emotional core as the feelings for this grand beast are made to seem, and, frankly, they are as important as the feelings we have for the human characters. Redford uses effective shots of the horse's one eye on the screen from time to time. Sometimes the left, sometimes the right and sometimes both of them and along with little glimpses of the horse's ears perking up at the right moment and its galloping in both rehabilitation and in its own maverick tendencies, the film remains solid.

A mild romance develops between Redford and Thomas but rather than turn the film into a soap opera by opening the audience's chest and massaging our hearts openly with his bare hands, Redford uses a more hypnotic and imaginative style of presentation that stays within the traditions of pure generational film making. 'The Horse Whisperer' is easily a film that could have been made anytime in the last 70 years of movie making and that is its strongest quality. It's for all ages. A grandparent will enjoy it as much as their grandson or granddaughter. The factory worker will like it as much as a doctor or lawyer. Its appeal is as broad as its story.

Director of photography Robert Richardson (Oscar winner for 1991's 'JFK'), deserves high praise for his towering images. Richardson is a patient cameraman, waiting for the right clouds to pass, the right illumination of light, the right light to bend and bounce and he captures much of the landscape from high aerial shots which are perfect in matching the film's visual style to its highly charged dramatic story. The last shot is a classic. You'll remember it long after you leave the theatre. You can't say that about too many movies. The film is also crisply edited for a real thrust in dealing with the flavour of a western story.

Screenwriters Eric Roth ('Forrest Gump') and Richard LaGravenese ('The Fisher King') have adapted the film from the novel by Nicholas Evans and while I have not read the novel, I understand Redford has changed its ending. Less than 5% per cent of the population read books and less than 20% read newspapers so if changing the ending of a book works for the creation of a motion picture, I see nothing wrong with it.

Redford directs himself very well in this film and gets a performance from Kristin Scott Thomas that has real edge and she really moved me. I, personally, have found her to be a very frigid actress in other films. I had no sympathy for her self destructive character in 'The English Patient' but the real magic in this film is from young Scarlett Johansson. Her transformation in personality from a bitter, traumatized accident victim to a spirited youth, as she was at the beginning of the film, before the accident, is truly great screen acting which I hope brings her an Oscar nomination.

I remember predicting in May of 1995 that 'Braveheart' would make it all the way to the Academy Awards and now in May of 1998, I am predicting the same for 'The Horse Whisperer'. Will it win Best Picture? It's too early to tell but if it isn't on the list of the final five, that will be a shame. Its running time of 169 minutes makes it a frontier epic which strikes at the heart of the human condition and it leaves no stone unturned and not a single frame of film is mishandled. This is Redford's best film.

Copyright 1998 Walter Frith

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