Black is the color of Caroline Thompson's true love's hair: black as in mane and coat, black as in horse, black as in "Black Beauty." A first-time director and longtime rider, Thompson brings to her film nothing so much as a pure and unadulterated passion for horseflesh.
But it's a particular kind of passion. It's not men's passion, it doesn't need to dominate and own and control. It doesn't see horses as useful, as mighty athletes or awesome load bearers or handsome steeds that reflect so winningly on their master. It is content to admire and let the object of admiration be its own self and seek its own counsel. It's about horses as horses, fellow voyagers on spaceship Earth, not as labor-saving devices.
The film, which Thompson (who wrote "Edward Scissorhands" for Tim Burton) adapted from the famous 19th-century Anna Sewell novel, is almost scrupulously loyal to that beloved volume and to its viewpoint. It was a sort of gimmick book, like Agatha Christie's "Who Killed Roger Aykroyd," in which the guilty person turned out to be the narrator. In Sewell, the innocent person was the narrator, except that the narrator wasn't a person but a horse.
It's a marvelous trick, for their age and for ours -- a first-person account by a horse as it travels through and learns about human society. From the horse's point of view, the journey amounts to a tour of hell. Clearly Sewell had a social agenda: to show the Victorians, those proud believers in their own destiny and moral superiority, a glimpse of the oppression upon which their empire rested. She had a particular bone to pick with them: a certain kind of fashionable harness that held the horse's head erect to make it more handsome, but which also turned its daily life into an ordeal. It's one thing to use an animal, she is saying, but another entirely to abuse it for purely stylistic reasons.
That's perhaps a narrow agenda for a modern movie, but it's part of Thompson's sublime austerity that she refuses to abandon it; she keeps the point, emphasizing the cruelty of the contrivance, counting on its metaphorical resonance to carry the drama. But austerity is the artistic hallmark of the film, even a formal costume drama that re-creates bustling London streets in the years before the automobile. For all the visual spectacle (there's plenty; it's a very handsome production), she never opens up and gives us a wider view, takes us further into society, or really panders to humans.
She may think her true audience is horses. This is possibly a mistaken commercial calculation, but it has the zany integrity of a true zealot, turning this "Black Beauty" into something like a crackpot masterpiece. (The Disney outfit would have insisted on more cuddliness, more icky anthropomorphism -- not Thompson.) We encounter humanity strictly as the horse encounters it and accept those limits; the judgments are equine, not human. Humans who are good to Beauty and his friends are good; human who treat them ill are bad.
Black Beauty is born into luxury and pleasure, raised on an estate, then sold to a loving family. His first experiences are wondrous, and Thompson fairly shivers with delight as she shows the horse bounding majestically about the English moors, its rippling muscles as glinty as the sea in high sunlight as it runs. The horse is even heroic, standing firm and drawing the groom from a raging flood.
But when the family has to move to America for the climate, Beauty is sold to cruel aristocrats who insist on treating him like a piece of equipment with that terrible harness; we hear his agony while these asses bray about his handsome carriage, requiring that the device be tightened even further. But he breaks down; with that he begins his plunge through society, stopping as a London cab horse and ending, most tragically, as a common dray horse, pulling agonizing loads of grain to the mill. The slaughterhouse is the next step, until fate steps in.
The human performers -- particularly David Thewlis as the London cabbie who owns and loves but must overuse Beauty -- are convincing if remote and not fleshed out; the horse and the stunt horse that play Beauty are particularly believable. But the core of the movie is a vocal performance by an unknown Scottish actor, Alan Cumming, as Beauty himself. It's a remarkable job, passionate and immediately convincing, eloquent in pain, majestic in serenity. It gives you something to hold on to, so that you know, if only for a few hours, what a horse's life must be like.
Starring Sean Bean and David Thewlis
Directed by Caroline Thompson
Released by Warner Bros.