Amazon Prime Instant Video film review: Black Beauty
Glossiness of horses10
Laura Humphreys | On 16, May 2014
Director: Caroline Thompson
Cast: Sean Bean, Alan Cumming, David Thewlis, Andrew Knott
Watch Black Beauty online in the UK: Amazon Prime Instant Video
Adapted from Anna Sewell’s 1877 eponymous novel, Black Beauty was always going to be a tough film to make. The original classic is, in effect, the memoir of a horse, written from said horse’s point of view. A giant, novel-length monologue. By a horse.
Thankfully, Caroline Thompson and co did not opt to bulk-buy peanut butter and slather it on, Mister Ed style. Instead, they embraced the more subtle inner monologue approach, and had the silky-coated Beauty brought to life by the equally-silky-voiced Alan Cumming. He gently walks you through Beauty’s life, from being broken in to farm work, cab driving in London, and abuse at the hands of unscrupulous businessmen. Beauty experiences good and bad in the world and meets many people – and horses – of note along the way. (Special mention must go to Ginger, the high-spirited love of Beauty’s life, and Merriweather, a prancing little pony that Beauty calls his best friend.)
If you don’t like horses, Black Beauty probably isn’t for you, you monster. It is a very horsey film, but lacks the quality of The Horse Whisperer or Seabiscuit – for some lengthy stretches of time, it resembles a painting more than a movie. Beautifully trained animal actors gallop in perfect unison across glorious countryside or trudge through Dickensian London slums while nothing much happens, except, y’know, horses. Well, horses and Danny Elfman’s enchanting soundtrack. But mainly horses.
Oddly, none of the other horses talk during the 88-minute runtime. We can only imagine their scintillating lives because in this film, only Black Beauty has developed a sentient consciousness and the ability to comprehend and reflect upon his equine self. Ginger & Merriweather are just thick.
This superficial quality is a bit of a missed opportunity, because Black Beauty is much more than a story for little girls about a pretty horse. Sewell’s work has a dark undercurrent of Victorian inequality about it. The hedonistic aristocracy are portrayed in sharp and shallow contrast to the urban working classes, who are living (and frequently dying) in crushing poverty.
While Lady Wexmire screeches through Beauty’s tenure at her estate for her horses to be reined painfully tight, groom Reuben York drinks himself into an early grave, suffering her wrath as much as her animals. Cab driver Jerry Barker, one of Beauty’s kindest owners, exemplifies the Victorian model of the deserving poor, nearly dying of Bronchitis while his employer keeps him waiting in the snow for several hours.
You have to look pretty hard for all that social commentary here, though. Thompson’s script makes sweeping judgements in a ham-fisted, Oliver-Twist like way, but relies too heavily on cliché to make any claim to seriousness. Black Beauty was made with the Pony Club in mind, and is squarely aimed at children; it is as innocent as the idealistic Beauty himself.
Children will adore it, especially those who have a pony on their Christmas list. Adults who still have a pony on their Christmas list will love it too. Still, the truth is unavoiable: this film is so tame that even Sean Bean makes it out alive.
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