sat 20/07/2024

War Horse | reviews, news & interviews

War Horse

War Horse

Spielberg's equine epic makes the jaw drop and the eyes roll in equal measure

Here's lookin' at ya: Albert (Jeremy Irvine) communes with Joey in Spielberg's latest

The thrilling does battle with the banal and just about calls it a draw, which is a synoptic way of describing the effect of Steven Spielberg's film of War Horse, based on the Michael Morpurgo novel that spawned the now unstoppably successful play.

Those nay-sayers who said it couldn't be done will find their prejudices confirmed, preferring the imaginative reach infinitely more easily arrived at by the use of puppets on stage. On the other hand, no one does epic screen moments quite like Spielberg, which on occasion means wincing through various passages while you await this director's long-patented cavalry charge of wonder.  

Some may find their patience tested beyond breaking point in a long (two and a half hours) movie whose first reel or so is easily its weakest. Telling of the burgeoning affection between the Devon teenager Albert (played by former Royal Shakespeare Company ensemble member Jeremy Irvine) and the horse, Joey, who leads the young man hurtling into the horrors of World War One, the script trades heavily on the kind of "I knew when I first saw you" stuff that one might expect from a meet-cute saga like One Day - except that such language is here applied to a strapping lad who would appear to have no actual friends and the half-thoroughbred that his drunken father (a sad-eyed Peter Mullan) buys at auction. Paging Dr Dysart from Equus, anyone?

Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson in War HorseBut as everyone surely knows by now, Albert is Joey's defender, not his destroyer, and there's a weirdly retrograde feel to the sections near the start where Albert grins with pleasure at his new-found companion's high spirits and gift for learning: "He's a horse, not a dog," the lad is reminded, such implicit reproaches proven to be as meaningless as the odd look of disapproval from Emily Watson (pictured above with Irvine) as Albert's tight-lipped but loving mum. Boy needs horse as much as horse needs boy, and the film is about the survival impulse and indomitability of spirit on both sides of that equation that will allow for the twilit, wordless, inevitably heartening ending.

The real excitement begins once Spielberg forsakes a Disneyfied view of the English landscape and leads us into the fray, a realm where one might expect the director of Saving Private Ryan to feel at home. Economic hardship prompts Albert's weary father to sell Joey, who is then taken across La Manche and into battle and towards the sort of set pieces at which this film-maker is without peer. (Those seeing the film solely for  Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston as military men may feel shortchanged once these sequences are over.) A British cavalry assault (pictured below) on a German encampment has a breathless speed that brings the spectator up short as the camera pulls back to reveal so many riderless horses along with the full carnage and cost of war: an army on horseback is no match for an enemy's artillery and the galloping mechanisation of combat. 

The Somme, thank heavens, resists the director's sugar-coating impulse

Because it takes the tenaciously minded, eventually heroic Albert a while (most of the war, in fact) to be reunited with Joey, War Horse largely follows separate, if parallel, paths. The equine route finds Joey billeted with a kindly French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his plucky granddaughter, Emilie (a gloopy Celine Buckens), a family whose shared devotion shows up the comparative fissures of the Narracott clan back in England, even if both households are beset by economic woes. Albert, in turn, discovers the human cost of war, not least via any of several passages in and out of the trenches that leave you feeling as ground down by war's cruelty and caprice as are the characters; the Somme, thank heavens, resists the director's sugar-coating impulse.

On stage, the thrill of the material rests not with Nick Stafford's script but with the empathic leap required to take the journey - the skill, for instance, with which the Handspring-trained puppeteers are able to effect Joey's transition from yearling to adult. What the film can do is offer a visceral sense of the various torments suffered by Joey, not least the deep and bloody punctures to his flesh, a wallow in realism that doesn't always serve the plot. I mean, would any actual mammal be so visibly and thoroughly flayed and come through unscathed?

In context, there's not much to say about the performances, any more than there is about the Lee Hall/Richard Curtis script, beyond the extent to which they collectively provide a framework for one or another tableau - some truly breathtaking, others cheesy beyond words (one reason why the linguistic component of such material scarcely matters). The finish seems to aspire to a Gone With the Wind-style gravitas that you'll either go with or not, John Williams's ever-inspirational music on hand as per the norm. I had a better time, to be honest, with the pell-mell ingenuity of Spielberg's concurrent (and, in box-office terms, competing) Tintin, not to mention Hugo, which is surely the finest Spielberg film not in fact made by this director. But if my eyes were left dry on this latest outing, there is an animal-minded film on the horizon this Oscar season that did get to me. Step up, the latest Matt Damon vehicle, We Built a Zoo.

  • War Horse is on general release from Friday, 13 January

Watch the trailer to War Horse

Boy needs horse as much as horse needs boy, and the film is about the survival impulse and indomitability of spirit on both sides of that equation


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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