2011 brings in its wake a renewed infatuation with Steven Spielberg. All has been quiet on his directorial front since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008; subsequently, Spielberg has been staunchly wearing his producer’s hat to bring us a mixed bag of movie morsels, ranging from the delectable Super 8, to the detestable Transformers 3. But in recent months, Spielberg has returned with the re-incarnation of Jurassic Park, then The Adventures of Tintin, and now the filmic interpretation of the Tony award-winning stage production War Horse. It’ll be a challenge to make it to Christmas without a Spielberg-fashioned frame hitting your retina.
War Horse is set in rural Devon, with comedy Wurzle accents and rolling hillocks a-plenty. The story follows farmer’s boy Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) as he raises a feisty horse named Joey to plough his drunken father’s fields, and save the family from financial ruin. But, alas, just as Albert and Joey have struck up a bond airing on the Equus-esque, the horse is cruelly ripped from his loving arms to be carted off to the big bad war. Albert is heartbroken. (I think Albert needs to get a grip, it’s only a blinking horse… I also think Albert might possibly need to get laid. But both would rather ruin the premise of the film.) Joey changes hands (and sides; this horse really has no political qualms, the fickle animal) with alarming frequency, from an empathetic British soldier (Tom Hiddleston), to disillusioned German youths fleeing from certain death on the front, to a young French girl and her grandfather (the brilliant Niels Arestrup), then a horse-hating German general, followed by a kind-hearted Geordie chap… and guess what?! Back to Albert! No, I didn’t see that coming either.
With all that flitting ownership to ram in, it’s no wonder this is a rather trying two and a half hours long, and to my mind, in need of some liberal snipping. The film is unmistakably Spielbergian: a reluctant father, a young male protagonist, Hollywood mega-bucks production values, a John Williams score… not to mention Spielberg’s tendency to bludgeon you into sentimental submission with endless emotional clichés. Unfortunately for this film, I am neither a fan of war or horses. Having grown up in a part of England where every other girl waxes lyrical about her pony until you want do a mischief to every horse in the county while the simpering equestrian-obsessives sleep under their My Little Pony bed sheets, I have grown to be anything but a horse sympathiser.
As the storyline flits from owner to owner with such frequency, the only constant character, and therefore the character with the most responsibility for reining you in emotionally (see what I did there?), is Joey, the ruddy horse. Now, some people might look at Joey’s big brown eyes and tousled mane and feel their little hearts melt. But I find it near-impossible to get any on-screen gravitas or emotional connection from an animal whose emotional range stretches from placid to freaked, with very little in between. And that, I’m afraid, is just not enough to keep a film afloat for two and a half hours.
The human cast of the film turn in a mixed bag of performances, with strong work from the quintessential British toff Benedict Cumberbatch, The Reader’s David Kross and the ever-excellent Emily Watson, but the award for the most three-dimensional acting certainly goes to Niels Arestrup, whose performance is a beautiful concoction of parochial wisdom, aged fragility and gutsy pride. Unfortunately, Jeremy Irvine’s debut film performance as our hero Albert smacks of stage acting uncomfortably transferred to film, with rather gratuitously melodramatic displays of emotion doing nothing to help Richard Curtis’s already effusive, sentimental script.
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is typical of old-school Hollywood: long tracking shots are the name of the game, with enough scenic imagery to make even the least patriotic Brit’s heart swell with pride at the beauty of rural England. It’s clean-cut and aesthetically perfectionist; regardless of whether this is your cup of tea or not, the cinematography can’t really be faulted. My one grumble came in the final moments of the film, when an exceptionally odd colour grade was used to bump up the emotional significance of Albert’s homecoming; it over-egged a poignant pudding.
War Horse is a solid family film, with heart-warming moments, surprisingly little bloodshed for a war film, and morals a-plenty. It offers tenderly portrayed lessons in bravery, honour and loyalty, and a glut of impressive visuals. However, for me, it just wasn’t enough to rely on a horse and the helping hand of CGI to convey these themes effectively. But, hey, if you love your jodhpurs more than your own mother, this is going to be the most exciting thing since Daddy bought your pony.
War Horse is in cinemas nationwide from January 13th 2012. Watch the trailer: