The Horse Whisperer


          Even before Nicholas Evans' novel THE HORSE WHISPERER was published
  in 1995, it was announced that the screen rights had been snapped up for a
  whopping $3 million with Robert Redford attached to the project. While it
  has taken several years (and the replacement of both female leads) to reach
  the screen, it may have been worth the wait. For the first time in his career,
  Redford both directs and stars in the title role. When one reviews the other
  films he has helmed, it's clear to see what appealed to him: like
  
ORDINARY PEOPLE, this is a story of a WASP family in crisis; it also has
  elements of the spiritual found in
THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR; nature
  plays a major role as in
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT; and just as QUIZ SHOW
    
had issues of morality, so does this film. Reportedly, Redford's first cut of
  
THE HORSE WHISPERER ran over four hours. Even after judicial pruning, the
  release print clocks in at a whopping two hours and 44 minutes. While it might
  have worked with a little more editing, the finished film is superb.

          The opening sequences introduce the family in turmoil: brittle magazine
  editor Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas), her husband (Sam Neill) and their
  teenage daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson). When Grace meets a friend and
  goes horseback riding on a snowy morning (gorgeously shot by Oscar-winning
  cinematographer Robert Richardson), it results in a terrible accident in which
  both Grace and her horse are injured. Trying to cope, Annie discovers an article
  about "horse whisperer" Tom Booker (Redford), a man with a special gift for
  healing traumatized animals. At first rebuffed, she nevertheless packs up her
  daughter (against the teenager's wishes) and the injured horse and sets out
  a cross-country drive to Montana. Once there, she is able to persuade Booker
  to take on the rehabilitation of the horse and in the process, begins to learn
  more about herself and her child. Much has been made of the fact that
  screenwriters Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese altered the novel's ending
  and fans of the book may be disappointed, but a case can be made for the
  changes which provide an effective and acceptable resolution (not to mention
  leaving open the possibility of a sequel).

          Besides Richardson's expert photography which rivals that of Philippe
  Rousselot's on
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, THE HORSE WHISPERER
  has much to recommend it. I might argue that the film could be trimmed by
  fifteen minutes without losing much, but director Redford establishes a
  deliberate pace that serves the material and evokes strong characterizations
  from nearly all the members of the cast. While the role of Annie in some ways
  recalls her Katherine Clifton of
THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Kristin Scott Thomas
  finds nuance as her character abandons her career track and relaxes into a rural
  existence. Scarlett Johansson as the injured Grace skillfully negotiates the rage,
  pain and angst of the injured teenager who blossoms anew. Sam Neill is stalwart
  as the understanding husband and father. Also adding richly observed
  performances are Chris Cooper as Redford's taciturn brother, Dianne Wiest as
  Cooper's wise wife and in a smart but crisp cameo Jeanette Nolan as Redford's
  mother. If any one is a weak link, surprisingly it's Redford. Perhaps the
  demands of both acting and directing forced him to split his attention. As
  an actor, he has rarely gotten his due, often dismissed as a "pretty boy". But
  he has a superb capacity to allow his leading ladies to shine: think of Jane
  Fonda in either
BAREFOOT IN THE PARK or THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN,
  Barbra Streisand in
THE WAY WE WERE, Meryl Streep in OUT OF AFRICA
  and even Michelle Pfeiffer in UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL. He does the same
  here for Scott Thomas but there remains something curiously mechanical in
  his work, as if he is distracted. He still can command the screen on occasion,
  but too often, Redford allows himself to be upstaged. Part of the problem is
  that his character's "talent" remains mysterious and seemingly consists of
  staring soulfully into the horse's eyes, as if in seduction. (It's not as
  laughable as it sounds.) As a result, Redford's character remains somewhat
  of a cipher. He's given a back story (an ex-wife in Chicago, etc.) but he
  seems more of a fictional creation than an actual person. It is an albeit not
  insubstantial flaw to an otherwise fine film.

                              
Rating:                B+
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.