For good and ill, The Bridges of Madison County, as both a book and a film, stands as a major, influential event in 1990s popular culture.
Clint Eastwood, in one of his canniest decisions as a director, was able to approach the shameless soapie (or 'woman's weepie') nature of that story by utilising a certain steely, reflective understatement – and, as a result, there was great pathos in his telling of an eternally recurring tale of commitment, longing and renunciation.
All such understatement is thrown overboard by another grand (possibly grandiose) actor-director, Robert Redford, as he takes on another slushy best-seller, Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer.
Here we have, again, a wife-and-mother, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), facing a marital crisis – poised between her unexciting but dependable husband Robert (Sam Neill) and the rugged, mysterious Tom (Redford), bearer of the divine gift of animal healing.
This typical triangle is placed just slightly in the background behind an intertwined plot. Annie's teenage daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson) has been in a terrible road accident, and her beloved horse Pilgrim took the brunt of the injuries. Slowly, under Tom's guidance, both the girl and her horse must work towards new health and happiness.
Redford, working from a script by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, 1994) and Madison County veteran Richard LaGravenese, turns what could have been a simple, small-scale, intimate story into an overblown extravaganza.
It is the absolute antithesis of Eastwood's approach: even the simplest dialogue exchange is accentuated and distended by sweeping landscape views, full orchestral blasts, ominous eye contact and slow-motion inserts.
This film boasts some decent moments, a few solid performances, and a great deal of stirring, close-up footage of horses in motion. But Redford empties the story of all its tantalising possibilities. The relatively severe censorship rating given to the film is especially puzzling, since one standard 'adult theme' entirely missing from this drama of longing is any shade, form or suggestion of sexuality.
It is hard to escape the thought that The Horse Whisperer is one enormous vanity project for Redford. His character is so good, so angelic, so unblemished by ambiguity or base motives that he becomes a joke. Tom's mystical communion with nature, his homespun wisdom and – last but not least – his rough, time-worn glamour take centre stage at every point.
It is the Barbra Streisand syndrome, except this time – intriguingly – practiced by a man in the throes of lyrical narcissism. Next to Tom, every character comes over as harried, neurotic, mundane and acutely unglamorous. It is a truly bizarre spectacle.
This may seem an odd remark, but the biggest problem with Redford's film is undoubtedly that the horse lacks personality. I am not asking that Pilgrim be more like Mr Ed – but he might have at least resembled Balthazar, the donkey so soulfully rendered in Robert Bresson's 1966 film of that name.
For all of Tom's mellifluous talk about how he learns to 'read' the complex traumas of the horses in his care, and notwithstanding the film's heavy-handed emphasis on the supposed empathy between man and beast, we never really come to care for Pilgrim as a living, feeling being in his own right. Star Trek manages to invest more character into androids and alien blobs than this poor creature is ever allowed.
Finally, Pilgrim does not register as a real character because Redford has higher designs for him: he ascends to the lofty realms of pure, 'high literary' metaphor. Pilgrim's pain and healing is an extension of, and symbol for, the personal journeys of both Grace and Annie. Learning to love again, to make tentative contact with and trust others, opening up – all these are fine, noble themes in the abstract. But in its concrete realisation, The Horse Whisperer is a crushing bore.
© Adrian Martin June 1998