There are few directors that can so expertly attack the heartstrings like Steven Spielberg. Whether it be benign alien visitors, eternal boy robots or endearing Eastern European tourists, he knows better than anyone how to use sentiment to his best advantage. With ‘War Horse’, his latest epic (and epic is the word for it), he does it again, and better than ever.
Adapted from both Michael Morpurgo’s novel and the National Theatre stage play, ‘War Horse’ follows the friendship between Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey, beginning just before the First World War, in Devon. When war is declared, Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) sells Joey to the British Army, where he's thrown into the horror of trenches and Fields of France. Desperate to reunite with his best friend, Albert follows him into the army, and the two battle to survive and be reunited as the world explodes around them.
‘War Horse’ is filmmaking on an epic scale. Joey’s journey takes him from one side of the conflict to the other - first behind enemy lines and eventually into the horrors of No Man’s Land. Placing a horse at the centre of a film, without any gimmick allowing him to narrate or talk, is a risky move, but Spielberg pulls it off beautifully, surrounding his hero with a fantastic British and European cast, especially newcomer Jeremy Irvine, who delivers a heartbreakingly understated performance. All of Spielberg’s team are at the top of their game. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who helped Spielberg redefine the rules of the war film with ‘Saving Private Ryan’, opts for a far more classic, photographic look. As always, John Williams delivers a magnificent score, steeped in the folk music of Devon and the traditions of British classical music.
The middle section of this long film (it's just shy of two and a half hours) does sag a little, spending more time following Joey in his journey behind enemy lines, and while this does open up the scale of the war, it leaves the heart of the film behind - that being the relationship between Albert and Joey. Once Albert re-enters the story though, the film takes of again with a breathtaking final act, including Joey’s horrific journey through No Man’s Land. It’s in this finale that Spielberg really shows why he is a filmmaker who knows how to use sentimentality to its greatest effect, delivering an ending that is both beautifully theatrical and appropriately understated. In the end, even with the backdrop of the war, it is simply a story about a horse and his boy, and he brings down the scale of the film back to this beautiful relationship.
‘War Horse’ is filmmaking on an epic scale.
After waiting three long years for a new film from Spielberg, we get two to enjoy at once, and two movies perfectly sum up his entire career. ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ sits comfortably next to the terrific fun of his 'Raiders' films and other action adventures. ‘War Horse’, on the other hand, is the classic Spielberg of ‘ET’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. While the cinemas fill with special effects blockbusters devoid of thought or emotion, he continues to wear his heart on his sleeve, but lets it sit there bloody and fragile. Not every detail is perfect by any means, but this is a beautiful film, in every way the sum of its parts. Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium and, once again, he has not let us down.