War Horse


Written by Hatti Whitman
16 Monday 16th January 2012

First off, this is not an action movie the way that most of Spielberg’s noughties films have been action movies. It is more of a slow-burn; a meditation on issues of family, class, national identity and stereotyping that manages to stay faithful to the spirit both of the theatre production and of the original Michael Morpurgo novel whilst making full use of a Hollywood epic budget. The cinematography is literally breathtakingly beautiful throughout the entire film, including the visceral scenes set on the Western Front. No Man’s Land is recreated with clear allusions to the work of artists such as Paul Nash in its haunting, blasted landscape, and this painterly vision informs the swooping aerial views of Dartmoor and one particularly gorgeous and affecting scene where the doomed British cavalry ride through a cornfield in Northern France.

Be warned, the film does start slowly, as it establishes the relationship between Albert Narracott (played by fresh-faced newcomer Jeremy Irvine) and Joey, a gorgeous thoroughbred that his father (Peter Mullen) buys at auction in a moment of madness. Albert is totally thrilled by this development, even though, as his mother (Emily Mortimer) puts it, it means that the humble Narracotts stand to lose everything. Cue lots of heart-warming triumph over adversity.

Then the First World War arrives, roaring into town like David Thewlis on a vintage motorbike (which is exactly how Spielberg chooses to announce it). With the Narracott family in dire financial straits Joey is sold to beautiful, earnest Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), whose decency and boyish good looks mark him out as a shining golden beacon of Englishness. Which isn’t a good thing to be if you want to stay unharmed in a war film. The main section of the film begins here and you realise that despite its stellar cast the main protagonist of this film, much like E.T., is not human. We see Joey in his incarnations as an ambulance horse, prize pet of a young French girl, and a German workhorse, pulling heavy artillery. In each role, he becomes beloved of his caregivers.

Without a doubt Joey’s (played by fourteen different horses over the course of the film) finest scene is when he flees the German trenches, including a magnificent tracking shot as he gallops along the German front line lit by artillery flashes and watched with amazement by wide-eyed soldiers. One of this film’s key triumphs is the way that it humanises every character given screen-time. There’s a lovely scene that illustrates this when an English and a German soldier engage in some witty banter (‘You speak good English’/’I speak English well’). As with all Spielberg’s war-set work it’s the war itself that’s shown to be evil, allowing bad guys the opportunity to be really bad. But Joey the horse symbolises the other side of the coin; the War Horse gives good people the chance to be good.

It could all come off a bit soppy, if it wasn’t executed so nicely. The attention to detail is meticulous and almost all the acting is excellent. Most importantly, Spielberg has retained the balance of epic scope and sensitive characterisation that typifies the best of his work. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this; hopefully you will be too.

War Horse is currently in cinemas nationwide.

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  • Guest: jimmyjones63
    Thu 19 - Jan - 2012, 21:38
    Damn I'm not sure if we saw the same movie? I definitely went in with an open mind but damn this was one shit house movie. So cheesy it was actually more of a comedy. Some good scenes but overall - super cheese fest for young kids and grandparents only. This had to be a paid review surely?