War Horse, 2011.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and Toby Kebbell.
A young boy Albert develops a relationship with the family horse he names Joey. They are split apart by the beginning of world war one and we follow Joey’s journey throughout Europe alongside the English Cavalry, French peasantry, German deserters, and into the frontline. Will they be reunited…?
This is Spielberg’s first venture into director’s chair (in a live action film) since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The great bearded one brings us a film that is Oscar bait, critical bait (to a certain extent) and Classical Hollywood idolatry. Does it have its flaws? Most certainly. Should that deter you from getting out there to see it? Absolutely not. The only real problem I had with the film is John Williams’ soaring symphony perpetually telling me how to feel.
Spielberg’s films, for the most part, intend to elicit a state of wonder for the audience and echo that in the character’s experience on screen. Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is a great window into the innocence and joy of pre-war youth. Spielberg creates a whimsical light in the beginnings of the film as Albert interacts with Joey – either riding him through the countryside or training him to come to a whistle that are contrasted with the more hard hitting dramatic sequences in the latter stages of the film. The production design is authentic. The scale of the picture transitions from personal to grandiose. Spielberg’s influences are present throughout with shades of David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) and of Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind). The film hit’s its peaks for me in the climax of the film in the sequences set deep in the WW1 trenches – you feel trapped in barbed wire and shrouded in mustard gas. Look out for the great exchange between an English and German soldier in ‘No Man’s Land’.
The performances for the most part are quite good. Jeremy Irvine felt a little manufactured at times though which removed me from the experience. Peter Mullan and Emily Watson play Albert’s parents Ted and Rose and unfortunately I’ve seen Tyrannosaur so I was a little uncomfortable with Mullan playing the down and out Dad (I thought he was going to beat the ever-loving Christ out of his family for most of the film). Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are highlights as the British Cavalrymen. Cumberbatch’s “Be Brave” catch cry resonates so absolutely in its futility. There is a great cameo from David Kross (the boy from The Reader) as the German soldier who next encounters Joey. The French Grandfather – Niels Arestrup is delightful and helpless in the surrounds of the pillaging horde of soldiers.
The script is adapted from the Michael Morpurgo novel by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. I’m going to make an assumption that Lee Hall’s (Billy Elliot) contribution was the good stuff and the moments that I wanted to fast-forward because they were slightly ‘naff’ belonged to Richard Curtis (The Boat That Rocked).
This sweeping ode to classical Hollywood isn’t the finest from Spielberg, which is a result of him consistently being an amazing filmmaker (Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich to mention a few). War Horse is a fine film, helmed by a fine filmmaker all too aware of how to pull the audience’s strings.