MFR Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
I saw the critically acclaimed play of War Horse just three days ago at the New London Theatre, a fabulous and highly enjoyable production, but a production nonetheless that relied heavily on some ingenious staging and remarkable special effects. Spielberg plucks out the story’s sentimentality and inevitably magnifies it even more, which misses the mark on occasions, but more often than not it’s rather super.
The film begins with a wide panning shot moving across the English countryside that made me fear Spielberg was remaking the opening credits of BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley (and that was before I checked to see Richard Curtis wrote the screenplay!). The John Williams soundtrack is rather incessant at the beginning and not particularly justified but fortunately it becomes less noticeable and more deserving as the film goes on. The opening actually feels surprisingly amateurish, but thankfully it manages to turn things around and create a really sweet story. Whereas the play starts off really strongly and peters out slighlty, the film builds the emotion and has the opposite effect.
War Horse is the story of horse, Joey, who is recklessly bought for too much money causing farmer’s 16 year old son, Albert to train the animal and try to recoup some worth from the horse. Albert develops a strong attachment to his beloved horse and when the First World War strikes they are separated as Joey is taken to war and embarks on an adventure, moving across France in different hands. Albert is eventually sent to fight as he also seeks to find reunion with his old friend.
War Horse has that big, epic feeling juxtaposed by taking the massive terror of the Great War and placing it in the heart of a horse, something which I can imagine many will find a bit too sappy. It is sentimental, yes, but just like the play you can’t help but feel an incredibly strong emotional attachment within the relationship between Albert and Joey. Fans of Saving Private Ryan will realize Spielberg knows how to film war-zones, again done with real atmosphere here. It’s a very human story, epitomized by a scene where a British soldier wanders into no man’s land holding a white flag following the Battle of the Somme to rescue Joey tangled in barbed wire and is offered pliers by a German from the opposite trench. Such moments really make this more than just a soppy animal movie, giving it a real emotional core.
OK, so it does misstep, particularly towards the ending which moves from the sentimental to feeling rather over the top in the universal admiration the world suddenly seems to feel for this horse. But I can’t say I wasn’t regularly touched. I’ve got to say, Spielberg treats this movie almost like a challenge to move his audience. Well done Steven, I thought I was tougher, but I bought it and you got me.
War Horse is out on 13th January in the UK and out now in the US. Running time 146 mins. Certificate 12A (UK).
Comments and feedback are always welcome or just give the film a rating by using the stars at the top.
Review by David Rank