Review – War Horse
2011, 146 mins, 12A, Dir. Steven Spielberg, starring Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston
Warning! This review may contain minor spoilers (only of set-pieces, not of the plot/ending).
Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of War Horse is one of two films released in the past year that have thrown you back to his career in the 1980s, the other being The Adventures of Tintin. After a flurry of more serious and dark-hearted films (which nonetheless retained at least a few tendons of Spielberg’s more playful senses) alongside the crushingly disappointing fourth Indiana Jones installment, 2011 has been a great return for the director. War Horse retains the sense of adventure and emotional drama that is characteristic of the early works of Spielberg, not coming out with many surprises, but certainly an enjoyable experience for most.
Based principally on the 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and gaining inspiration from the far more successful 2007 stage play, War Horse is an intriguing story of a farmboy in the early 20th century who, after training a horse that comes into his possession, is shocked to find that it has been registered to help with the war effort. The young boy, named Albert, is conscripted into the army and tries to find his beloved friend in the midst of the devasting First World War. The story of the injustices of war and the undying hope of one young lad is Spielbergian in itself and it’s quite obvious that he is the man for the job.
Despite this, a sizeable amount of Albert’s journey (especially to the war front) is left out of the final film, which still stands at nearly two and a half hours. For an extended period midway we see and hear nothing from the boy and thus a certain portion of the emotional effect (considering his young age in the story) is lost. It is worth noting, however, that the film is not necessarily Albert’s; it is Joey the horse’s. We follow his journey through the hellish battlegrounds of war, from a fatal cavalry charge to his painful entanglement in between the British and German trenches. He is our main protagonist, our main lead, and we vouch for him, although Albert’s role overall is somehow lost in translation.
Never mind. The acting is superb. Young newcomer Jeremy Irvine gives a confident and gripping performance while Peter Mullan and Emily Watson provide great support as his mother and father. Worth mentioning are Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston who, while only appearing in a few scenes, are utterly convincing as the young, idealistic British army officers. But Spielberg is the real star here. After forty years in the business he is certainly an expert in mise-en-scène; every shot is immaculately framed alongside some beautiful transitioning with the help of regular collaborator Janusz Kaminski.
While the stage play is more stripped-down and raw, the film is on a much greater scale with its epic battle scenes and rich score by John Williams, his best work in a while. The director is no stranger to war violence as we all know and War Horse does not shy away from it. In fact, it’s remarkably gritty for its rating, not very gory, but certainly a tough watch in parts. The camera doesn’t flinch during the punishment of two German deserters; this style is very much reminiscent of Spielberg’s uncompromisingly brutal Schindler’s List. War Horse, then, is lighter Spielberg with darker elements, as oppose to the films in the mid to late nineties that proved him to be more than just a popcorn director.
War Horse is an excellent film. Its virtuoso directing, marvellous acting and set-pieces form a film that harks back to the restless adventure of E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has a strong emotional core and is bound to be loved by audiences, although its story somewhat lacks in consistency; the stage play is superior on that front.
4 stars out of 5.