A film about a horse. A description which would make anyone sceptical or say ‘I’ve seen/don’t care about Black Beauty’. Honestly, if anyone else had been working on this project, it would be difficult to see how it could pan out into a full length feature. But War Horse is brought to us by the man who turned aliens from cannon fodder to cute and cuddly. Yes, once again Steven Spielberg pulls it off with emotional panache.
The silver screen adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel sees Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) bond with a feisty colt, Joey, before his alcoholic veteran father (Peter Mullan) lets a personal rivalry force his hand into risking his livelihood and family to purchase the horse.
As Albert and Joey create an unshakeable bond, World War I reaches England and, with no other option to save his farm, Albert’s father reluctantly sells Joey to the army under Captain Nicholls’ (Tom Hiddleston) protection. As battle rages, Joey is captured by the Germans and looked after by a kindly French girl in the lead up to the film’s tearful climax as Albert enlists in an effort to be reunited.
Spielberg said in a recent interview with Empire magazine: ‘I’m faced with the challenge of making a movie where I not only had to watch the horse, I had to compel the audience to watch it along with me.’ Embedded in this challenge is the crux of what makes the film special. Essentially, Spielberg has to create an empathy with the non-speaking animal through its interactions and relationships with its human screen counterparts.
Though the cast list has a number of well known actors, writers Lee Hall and Richard Curtis have ensured that the actors are provided with enough individual screen time to create their web of relationships without letting them have so much that they steal the focus from Joey. This is furthered by John Williams’ score, which is, expectedly, eloquently and delicately weighted to heighten the tone of key scenes without even being noticeable to the audience. Such subtlety has been recognised and a Golden Globes nomination is already in the bag.
Under Spielberg’s steady hand and eye for the powerful shot, the supporting cast of relatively unknown Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch – perfect as the intellectual English Officer – and Emily Watson as the long suffering wife to Ted Narracott excel in their respective roles with David Thewlis in an unaccustomed spiteful role that is as convincing as his recent Harry Potter portrayals.
War Horse is undoubtedly fresh ground for Spielberg to venture into but he delivers a feature with real emotional impact highlighting a number of the futilities of World War I’s trench warfare. Some of the humorous and surreal scenes however do detract a little from what is otherwise an accomplished dramatic piece. War Horse has already secured two Golden Globe nominations and is sure to receive more at Tinsel Town’s other award ceremonies.
Best performance: The goose. No, there’s no Top Gun cameos. There are two humorous scenes in which a feathery friend steals the show providing some of the light relief in a film with a heavy focus on despair.
English Soldier: ‘You speak good English.’
German Soldier: ‘I speak English well.’
Best scene: Spielberg’s subtlety when two German deserters face their punishment. There should be a ‘Best Use of a Windmill’ category added to the awards season this year.
Watch this if you liked: Endless viewings of Blackadder’s final episode, Marley and Me, E.T., Saving Private Ryan.
This is the first WWI Spielberg film although he has produced a number of WWII features.