The Horse Whisperer

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Stories as good as this are rare. A successful New York magazine editor in a stale marriage has to come to terms with a terrible accident that cripples her 14-year-old daughter and seriously injures her horse.

Rather than throw herself into work and have the animal put down, she researches veterinary healers and discovers a man in Montana, known as a horse whisperer. When he refuses to take on the case, she drives her daughter and the horse to the ranch he shares with his brother's family. Over the next months, he works with the horse, easing its trauma, restoring its health. He influences the women, also, with his gentle, firm approach. As his sister-in-law says: "He has a gift from heaven above. He's a good man, but he's still a man."

Beneath the apparent simplicity of the plot, fundamental questions are asked concerning the meaning of communication, the purpose of things. The teenage girl has a fractious relationship with her mother. She feels sorry for herself and hates her mother's controlling ways. There are degrees of selfishness on both sides and strong egos at work. He, on the other hand, is rooted to the earth, with ties that bind him to a stability she has never known. Of course, she wants it, as she wants anything she does not have. She is uncomfortable with silence.

Robert Redford has always been reluctant to direct himself. He does so here because he feels so involved in the subject. It seems he was born to play the horse whisperer. He brings to the film a mature intelligence and feeling for the quality of the life it projects. The ranchers' values contrast with the frenetic addiction to fashion that constitutes a magazine journalist's obsession with news trivia. "She's on the phone 23 hours a day," the loyal daughter cracks. When asked why she can't sit still, she smiles. "If you sit still for one minute in New York, you get renovated." And yet he can sit still in a field for half a day to allow the horse to feel safe with him.

The acting is outstanding, the photography breathtaking and the script uncluttered by sentimental mishmash. Kristin Scott Thomas proves, after too long as the promising new face in the waiting room, the one who complemented Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient, that she is a magnificent actor. Even more so than Redford, she gives the film a contemporary edge. You can trace emotional switches in her eyes, as she responds to remarks that upset the professional woman's need to feel on top of whatever crisis emerges. She uses charm as a weapon and conveys the brittleness behind an organising mind. To agree with the majority view is to deny the luxury of refusal. Noone is better at exposing insecurity than Scott Thomas.

Her's is the performance that stops The Horse Whisperer becoming a sunset-with-long-grass picture. Scarlett Johansson, as the daughter, is an added bonus. She has confidence and a fearless nature. Redford casts his movies exceptionally well and his actors show their appreciation by being better than they thought they could be.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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The Horse Whisperer packshot
A trainer is enlisted to heal a horse but also works magic on those around him.
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Director: Robert Redford

Writer: Eric Roth, Richard LaGravenese

Starring: Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Neill, Dianne Wiest, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones, Ty Hillman, Kate Bosworth, Austin Schwarz, Dustin Schwarz

Year: 1998

Runtime: 158 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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