War Horse (2011) / Drama-War
MPAA rated PG-13 for violence
Running time: 146 min.
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Niels Arestup, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Matt Milne, Robert Emms, Eddie Marsan
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis (based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo)
Review published January 29, 2012
Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones 4, Munich) directs this charming story, based on the young reader's novel by Michael Morpurgo, later adapted into a play on the London stage, about a remarkable thoroughbred-turned-farm horse named Joey, who ends up being sold by its loving but destitute human family to an officer in the British cavalry to be used in the field of battle during World War I. Much of the tale is bookended by the only son of the family, teenager Albert (Irvine, Great Expectations), who forms a special bond with the horse after breaking Joey in to work the farm. As the horse departs, Albert vows that they will reunite, and what follows is one horse's odyssey as he changes from owner to new owner, from army to new army, and makes an impact, for better or for worse, on everyone he comes in contact with.
Spielberg turns in a gorgeous, old-fashioned war epic with the requisite emotional content amid the special effects sweeping battle sequences the veteran director has come to be known for over the last several decades. Although Spielberg clearly is playing to audience heartstrings, sometimes overplaying, there's no question that the aesthetic beauty and imagery of the piece is what one is truly moved by, more so than the often touching portrayals of family and the ruthlessness of war. Working off of a screen adaptation by solid screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Pirate Radio, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), the tale is told through a series of vignettes.
A few touches seem saccharine, such as the anthropomorphic personalities of the horses, particularly in the acts of heroism or love, may roll a few eyes, but there are definitely scenes that are quite strong. One particular scene, perhaps the film's best sequence, in which a German and British soldier leave their ranks to try to save Joey, who finds himself in mortal turmoil, which delivers humor, valor, and a brief break from the doom and gloom that permeates much of the war for an example of human kindness that transcends barriers. Most remarkable is how quickly establishes character with just a few personality touches.
Also impressive are the scenes of battle, which Spielberg has become a master of over his many films, especially as we see the startled horse run feverishly through infantry, away from tanks, and through cavernous trenches. One marvels at how much acting and action can be done with a silent horse at the forefront, and Spielberg is able to give us just what the horse is feeling or thinking at any given time without the need for lengthy exposition.
In the Spielberg filmography, War Horse doesn't rank among Spielberg's best films, perhaps the middle of the pack in terms of critical ranking, though most directors would be lucky to attain middling Spielberg for their best effort.
©2012 Vince Leo