Dir. Stephen Spielberg
3 ½ out of 5
Theatre aficionados will no doubt be aware of the acclaim garnered by the stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s novel War Horse; not least thanks to the astonishing puppetry demonstrated in animating the play’s mechanical horses. The production, which made its Broadway debut last year, has been a phenomenal success, and its silver screen, Steven Spielberg-helmed counterpart has now arrived amid a shower of media publicity and award nominations, most notably an Oscar nod for Best Picture. For the most part, the considerable hype is justified, and while the shift from animatronic to live horses has left some of the play’s unique charm lost in translation, the result is arguably Spielberg’s finest film in the last six years.
War Horse opens with sweeping shots of rural Devonshire, the landscapes given the romantic lustre to be expected in a Spielberg blockbuster. The villages are picturesque, the cottages quaint, and the film is saturated with bucolic charm. We are introduced immediately to Joey, a young colt who is soon acquired by the troubled Narracott family. The opening act centres on the blossoming friendship between Joey and the young Albert, played competently by newcomer Jeremy Irvine. The rapport between boy and horse is instantly affecting, and the amount of personality displayed by the equine cast impressive, however the movie dwells for too long on these foundational moments. The first forty minutes or so build rather ploddingly toward a cathartic ploughing scene, at which point the audience is left wondering rather impatiently when the war is going to arrive.
Thankfully, it appears shortly thereafter; the narrative shifts gear, and Joey is deployed to France under the care of Tom Hiddleston’s likeable Captain Nicholls. War Horse subsequently takes on an episodic structure, as Joey changes hands in a journey bound for the front line at the Somme. While brilliantly showcasing Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous cinematography, in some cases the staccato storytelling restricts the audience’s ability to engage with the horse’s human companions. One promising chapter sees two young German brothers fleeing their barracks in an attempted act of desertion, however their tale is brought to a halt almost immediately, leaving their relationship and their predicament underdeveloped and uninvolving as a result.
This isn’t the only issue: in keeping with the film’s glossy aesthetic, even the bog and barbed wire of no man’s land are given a Hollywood sheen, conveying little of the war’s grimness and gravity. However, whilst the conflict may be peripheral, it adequately underscores a universal tale of friendship in the face of extreme adversity. This is first and foremost a family movie, closer in tone to Spielberg’s E.T. than his Saving Private Ryan, and it deliberately focuses on the more personal trials of its characters over the transcendent struggle of the war. The emphasis in War Horse is placed squarely on the ‘horse’.
The whole thing is swept along by a suitably rousing John Williams score, which, combined with the saccharine visuals, threatens at times to overwhelm with sentimentality. But then War Horse is not a film for the misanthrope, and those willing to embrace its schmaltziness and be carried away by its histrionics will find themselves captivated, and inevitably moved by its undeniably affective conclusion. Spielberg’s equine epic is a melodrama of the highest order, and though its sumptuous portrayals of pastoral Europe and the Great War are ultimately insubstantial, they furnish what is, at its heart, a simple, touching, and deceptively human drama.