First Look Pictures // 2002 // 92 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // October 19th, 2004
"Even if I wanted to, we can't help them. It's the price they pay to remain wild and the one we pay to stay with them." -- Fiona (Jane Seymour)
Family movies, the good ones, strike a delicate balance. They must engage our wonder and our hearts, moving us to feel emotions with the unself-consciousness of children instead of distancing ourselves with grown-up cynicism. Yet if they err even by the weight of a feather too far on the side of emotionalism, they go crashing down in maudlin sentiment. Touching Wild Horses is burdened with a title that seems to brand it as belonging to the schmaltzy side of the balance, but it actually does a pretty good job of avoiding gooeyness -- and it benefits from a genuinely remarkable setting.
Twelve-year-old Mark (Mark Rendall) finds himself the unwanted guest of his reclusive aunt Fiona (Jane Seymour, Somewhere in Time) after a car accident kills his father and sister and leaves his mother in a coma. With no other relatives to take him in, he travels to Sable Island, a wild, undeveloped place dubbed by sailors "The Dark Isle of Mourning," for an indefinite stay. His aunt is hostile, brusque, and openly vexed at this intrusion into her solitude. The only other human inhabitant of the island, and a part-time one at that, is the government worker who maintains the weather station: Charles (Charles Martin Smith), a by-the-book bureaucrat.
Although the human population numbers only three, however, the island teems with inhabitants: the wild horses that live there under government protection. In order that they may stay wild, the government forbids humans to feed, touch, or otherwise interfere with the horses -- but when a foal's mother dies in a hurricane, Mark is irresistibly drawn to help it. But doing so puts his aunt in a tenuous position: Fiona knows all too well that Charles will oust her from the island if she gives him cause, and there could scarcely be more obvious cause than permitting her nephew to interfere with the horses. Nonetheless, she overcomes her initial anger at the boy's actions and eventually comes to aid him in his efforts to help the foal survive the winter. Besides the risk that they will be banned from the island, however, there is also the danger that the foal will come to be dependent on human bounty for survival.
The wild landscape of Sable Island, with its skeletal shipwrecks and freely roaming wild horses, is one of the most picturesque settings for a movie that can be imagined. Touching Wild Horses benefits immeasurably from this desolate yet striking location, which possesses a kind of stark beauty totally free from postcard prettiness. Screenwriter Murray McRae says that the island itself, and its poignant nickname, inspired his story, and the unusual combination of unfettered life and the constant presence of death (in the form of the shipwrecks) is a rich story resource. The exquisite location photography and the breathtaking shots of the horses combine to give the film power and emotional pull. I'm not at all a horsey person, never having gone through the horse-loving phase through which most little girls pass, but I was rapt at the sight of these shaggy, restless, unconsciously graceful creatures heedlessly roaming over the sand.
Strong performances aid in keeping the film on the safe side of sentimentality. Seymour, usually such a ladylike and romantic presence, here plays effectively against type as Fiona. Eschewing glamour, she jams an ugly hat down over her signature long hair and lowers her voice to a hard rasp. Of course, it comes as no surprise when we find that a secret sorrow lurks in her past, a closely guarded event that drove her to her island solitude. And it's to be expected that over the course of the movie she and her nephew will draw close to one another and that her abrupt, crusty demeanor will thaw into warmth and acceptance. Anyone who is at all familiar with the children's classic The Secret Garden and its literary and film descendants will be able to predict that nature will play a part in healing Mark and that he and Fiona will learn to love each other. Despite the predictability of her character arc, however, Seymour still makes it involving and credible; she lets the change come very gradually and, aided by McRae's screenplay, keeps Fiona's transformation relatively subtle and within the bounds of believability.
Young actor Mark Rendall likewise avoids the most common pitfalls: Instead of being either too ingratiating or too petulant, he finds a realistic middle ground. Rendall's lack of self-consciousness is unusual and refreshing in child actors; there's a kind of commonsensical quality that grounds his performance and actually creates a nice sense of kinship with the character of his aunt. Some of the more emotional scenes tax him slightly beyond his range, but overall his performance is solid.
When the film does venture into maudlin excess, it is so late in its running time that we don't have to endure it long. The final voiceover monologue that wraps up all the loose ends is a bit too much; it tells us far more than is necessary and damages the credibility of the story by waving a wand over the characters' lives and granting them everything we could possibly have wished for them. There is also an unfortunate tendency toward cliché that bobs up from time to time, both in visual terms (I hope never again to see a child's doll lying broken on the ground as a token of some domestic disaster) and in the proliferation of traumas heaped upon the characters by the screenplay. Just one less emotional burden on the shoulders of Fiona or Mark would have made a big difference in credibility; as it is, the film veers dangerously toward Lifetime crisis-of-the-week territory. Nevertheless, even taking into account these quibbles, the film manages to restrain itself from emotional excess for much of the time, and it possesses along with its basic optimism a certain toughness of spirit that is pleasantly bracing, like a salty wind blowing across the sand dunes.
Audiovisual quality is attractive without being remarkable. Visually the transfer is clean and vibrant, and the audio mix makes effective use of the near-constant background sound of surf on the shore; the placement of this ambient sound is nicely immersive and realistic. Unfortunately, the lovely musical score -- tinged with Celtic melancholy -- is given none of this breadth and dimension, remaining very flat.
The extras are minor, but extras of any kind are always something of a pleasant surprise on a small film like this one. The interview segment with McRae and director Eleanore Lindo, which runs slightly over six minutes, features clips of each responding to various questions about the production (given in text to provide context for the clips). The brief (five and a half minutes) featurette features the main actors, and although it leans heavily toward plot and character synopses, it too provides some illuminating glimpses into the making of the film and the intentions and experiences of those involved. All the interview clips for these extras are shot on location, and the way the speakers have to fight to be heard over the brisk wind enhances one's sense of the sometimes forbidding face of Sable Island.
It doesn't entirely eschew cliché or sentiment, but Touching Wild Horses is nonetheless a film with considerable family appeal. The scenery and wildlife are captivating, the performances solid, and the story positive and satisfying. Horse lovers should find this particularly enjoyable, although they may well find some logical quibbles that escaped this horse-ignorant city gal.
Charles would probably push for a tougher verdict, but this court decrees Fiona and Mark not guilty. The court will continue to extend its protection over all the denizens of Sable Island, both human and equine.
Review content copyright © 2004 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* "Touching Wild Horses: Behind the Scenes"
* Writer and Director Interviews