Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (screenplay) based on the book by Michael Morpurgo.
Principal cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis and Niels Arestrup.
Release date: 13th January 2012.
Veteran director Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel follows the experiences of a horse named Joey, separated from farmer’s son Albert Narracott (Irvine) and leased to a British Cavalry Captain (Hiddleston), he finds service in the killing fields of France with both the British and German forces until finding himself trapped amidst the barbed wire fencing of no man’s land and the focus of an unlikely event that will lead to an even stranger reunion.
Morpurgo’s children novel has already found critical acclaim not only in the literary world but with its subsequent adaptation for the stage by Nick Stafford, now established as a firm favourite by both adults and children alike, the story has been brought to the big screen by Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg’s recent body of work has seemed somewhat workmanlike and although watchable, the bulk of his output over the last decade has failed to linger in the imagination or warrant repeated viewings.
For the most part, War Horse marks a return to the compelling film making and story telling found in the director’s earlier work, albeit the return to form initially falls at the first hurdle with an overly sentimental and heavy handed opening act that seems forced in nature and fails to make the most of a top notch British cast that includes Peter Mullan, Emily Mortimer, David Thewlis and newcomer Jeremy Irvine.
The opening moments simply fail to contain any subtlety and the score by John Williams initially feels too imposing as the music almost telegraphs to the audience what emotions they should be sensing whilst Spielberg’s take on the hardship of working class farming folk resembles a hand me down Black Beauty directed by John Ford with his Devon based protagonists more often than not reduced to one dimensional stereotypes with clichÃ© dialogue.
However, any heavy handed simplicity is swiftly swept away with the arrival of Tom Hiddleston’s British Cavalry Captain and the spectre of the First World War, simply put, the next hour and a half are charged with some spellbinding and emotional storytelling that witnesses the director not only refuse to shy away from the horror and complex emotions brought about by the events of the Great War but also recapture some of his movie making magic from yesteryear.
The mechanisation of warfare and the passing away of the age old cavalry charge are intelligently realised as Cumberbatch’s commanding Major Stewart and Hiddleston’s sensitive Captain Nicholls face the shock of the new in the form of the Gatling gun.
The tragic and sudden demise of Hiddleston’s character thus begins a series of exchanges that will find the warhorse crossing paths with a cast of characters all coming to terms with the carnage of the war.
Leonard Carow and David Kross give subtle and somewhat desperate performances as two young brothers who use the horse to desert the front only to find their hopes shot down before the firing squad whilst Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens briefly mirror the opening act as the civilian farmer and granddaughter struggling to maintain ordinary life just a throwaway from the front line.
But perhaps the most understated and subtle performance in the entire movie belongs to Rainer Bock, whose German horse handler quietly feels the agony of his animals as they proceed on a repetitive death march to drag the German guns into position, a visually stunning piece of cinema which visualises the carnage of war with its imagery of horse carcasses, man made artillery and a glimpse of a front transformed out of all recognition into a deadly killing field.
The key set piece which finds Joey trapped amidst the barbed wire intensity of no man’s land is deftly handled with its subtle and touchingly ironic exchange between a British soldier (originally Welsh in the book and now Geordie) and German counterpart that perhaps owes as much to screenwriter Richard Curtis (Blackadder Goes Forth) and the two actors as to Spielberg.
And Irvine has more to play with within the final act as his farmer boy turned soldier faces the prospect of chemical warfare and a strange yet emotional reunion with a friend thought lost.
Shame then, that after a compelling second act, Spielberg decides to dip the closing moments in a sugar coated finale that encompasses a fake sunset to put even Gone with the Wind (1939) to shame, but for the most part, War Horse along with its cast of thousands marks a return to form for the director.
Despite a heavy handed and none too subtle opening segment, War Horse finds its stride amidst the battlefields of the First World War with an emotional and intelligent family yarn told on an epic scale. Worth viewing.