The Horse Whisperer un-furls with all the speed of a hill-climbing snail and boasts all the unhurried romance of The Bridges Of Madison County. Adapted from Nicholas Evans' bestselling novel, it's an old-fashioned drama blessed with a twist of the mysterious. The horse whisperer in question is Marlboro Man lookalike Tom Booker (Redford), who's hired by elegant and frosty magazine editor Annie MacLean (Scott Thomas) to heal her daughter's injured and spiritually troubled horse.
The actual nuts and bolts of horse whispering may be left vague (Redford's trick is to stare intently at the mental gee-gee for a very long time), but the film's theme and direction are rather more obvious. As Booker points out, he "helps horses with people problems". Not only does Grace need an extra large spiritual Band-Aid (she can't cope with losing both her best friend and one of her legs in the accident), but Annie has her problems too: she's far more interested in her job than her marriage to Robert (Sam Neill); she's a terrible mother; and to complicate matters still further, a lusty romance blossoms between her and Redford's rugged pony-murmurer.
While Redford could have chosen to follow the book closely, he shies away from the source's gratuitous bedplay and some of its more dispiriting plot points. Instead, his film tells a thoughtful, safe and slow tale, counterbalancing the lack of pace with plenty of breath-taking photography, solid direction and fine acting.
Although the subject matter, with its issues of loss, suffering and forbidden love, is potentially depressing, Redford and his screenwriters successfully sidestep excessive sentimentality to handle the bleaker moments with intelligence, maturity and humour. After the harrowing accident itself (which is so realistic that it'll have you peeping through your fingers), Redford instills the movie with the same calm, understated qualities evoked by the inscrutable Booker.
Of course, "calm and understated" can also easily mean "boring and lifeless", and it doesn't really help that The Horse Whisperer is so damned long. Weighing in at a hefty two hours and 40 minutes, the slo-mo tempo undermines the film's strengths; fortunately, spot-on performances from Scott Thomas and Johannson in particular manage to hold the attention, as do the regular, spectacular vistas of the mountainous, wild Montana landscape.
And what of Redford? The Horse Whisperer will be best remembered for his direction rather than his portrayal of the dull cowboy-cum-horse shrink. No doubt smirking his trademark smile behind the lens, he gently nudges home The Horse Whisperer's feelgood point with considerable, if somewhat self-indulgent, style.
The Horse Whisperer benefits enormously from Redford's understated direction, some superb performances and a host of stunning outdoor locations. But it suffers from being too long and may disappoint those expecting something more steamy.