War Horse Review
Not to be outdone by pal Martin Scorsese's foray in to the family film market with the sparkling Hugo, Steven Spielberg returns with his adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's tale of a boy and his horse, and the National Theatre stage play it inspired. It's a beautiful piece of filmmaking from the veteran director, perfectly judged in tone; it doesn't forget to aim the story at the same young audience the book targeted, but neither does it shy away from the horrors of the conflict. This isn’t a film for jaded critics, and will likely go away empty-handed from the major awards ceremonies. But it is a classy production which in all likelihood will become a firm favourite among schoolkids everywhere in years to come.
Beginning in an extremely tranquil Devon circa 1914 (complete with a score by John Williams channelling Vaughan Williams), we spend a long-ish first act watching Joey being raised on a farm run by Peter Mullan's alcoholic war veteran, who bought him in a fit of drunken pride. His son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who immediately bonds with the feisty animal (the horse, not Peter Mullan), manages against all the odds to train the thoroughbred for farm work, only for The Great War to intervene - Joey is recruited in to the cavalry. There, Albert’s friend endures a series of trials and tribulations which starkly illustrate the tragedy that war leaves in its wake, whether man or beast.
Initially it all seems a bit too quaint and picturesque, but this is entirely deliberate; the contrast with the later war-set chapters is rendered all the more effectively. The sets and photography also feel deliberately artificial at times - a tip of the hat perhaps to the importance the play had in rescuing the book from obscurity, but also a neat way of smoothing the rough edges from the violence by splashing the screen with vivid colours and atmosphere. From a technical standpoint War Horse is as accomplished as any Spielberg project: the aforementioned Williams score; the heightened, lush cinematography; a strong cast of up-and-coming talent (Jeremy Irvine, excellent as Albert, plus Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch) alongside more established faces (the brilliant Peter Mullan, plus Emily Watson and David Thewlis). No terrifying Saving Private Ryan-style battles here (though the recreation of the Somme is suitably intense); just a calm and carefully crafted story that can be enjoyed and appreciated by almost any age group.
For those who have seen the ingeniously constructed stage version, Spielberg’s movie offers an interesting comparison. Parts of the story have been stretched out and embellished, with new characters added. Not having read the book, I am unable to comment as to which adaptation is the more faithful, but at nearly two and a half hours the film seems a little padded out. The main difference between the two versions of course is that the film uses real horses as opposed to the play’s incredible puppets. Spielberg compensates for the intimacy that theatre allows by spending more time establishing the emotional connection between Joey and Albert, a tactic that more or less succeeds. By the time war arrives and the two are forced apart, it’s difficult not to feel Albert’s heartache.
It would be rather too easy to be cynical about War Horse. Yes, Spielberg’s done war films before; yes, the plot is just a string of episodes linked together by a wandering horse; no, there is not much in the way of nuanced characters. But this is a film that eschews cynicism. Once you've adjusted to its emotional earnestness and simplicity of storytelling, there's a genuinely moving and timeless tale to be discovered.