With its inane and sickly sweet storyline, War Horse is not up to the usual standard of Spielberg's family adventures
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis
Heart-in-mouth "will they make it" moments are a staple element of Spielberg films. Will the police chief shoot the gas tank lodged in the big shark's mouth? Will the crabby archaeologist escape the temple without being flattened by the massive boulder? Will the irritating kids get out of the kitchen before they become a light lunch for some raptors?
War Horse has a fair amount of these scenes too, but the first one to arrive sets out a clear indicator that the film probably isn't going to be one of Spielberg's most exciting, despite earning six Oscar nominations this week. With a rousing orchestral soundtrack (the Oscar-nominated John Williams, of course), we're left to hold our collective breath over whether a horse will plough the field so the farmer boy can plant turnips to pay rent to the evil landowner. That's right, people, hold tight.
Based on the children's book and the hugely successful West End production, War Horse is part Sea Biscuit, part Saving Private Ryan: a soppy drama set during the First World War where the female lead has been replaced by a horse. Starting in southern England, we're introduced to Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), a rather simple farm boy whose only friends are another boy, even more simple-looking than himself, and the young thoroughbred foal in the neighbouring field. Using what is known in the business as a "Richard Curtis Britain", Spielberg presents the land as a lush green melange of rolling hills basking in sunshine and sunsets, where rain is only deployed for dramatic effect, not just because it rains quite a lot in England.
When Albert's alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) purchases the colt, "the finest 'orse I'd ever seen", at a market auction (naturally set in a quaint village filled with flat caps, beards and plenty of "ooh ars") instead of the plough horse he really needed, he puts his farm on the edge of financial ruin. Thankfully, young Albert is on hand to train up Joey (our lead's new name) under the disappointed yet motherly eye of Rose Narracott (Emily Watson), and a love affair quickly blossoms between boy and beast. Entirely wholesome it may be (it is Spielberg, after all), but the mushiness is eye-wincing at times.
Sadly, this equestrian romance is cruelly ripped asunder on the outbreak of the First World War, and Joey is sold off to a British army general (David Thewlis). "Wherever you are, I will find you," exclaims a tearful Albert, reminiscent of the waterfall scene in Last of the Mohicans when Daniel Day Lewis promises to rescue his fair maiden (who isn't a horse).
Off we then go on a merry and often not-so-merry adventure across the battlefields of France, with Joey skipping between owners as each one falls victim to the murderous war. Numerous characters become captivated by his silky mane – at one point he's renamed François after being taken in by a French girl and her jam-making granddad – but it's clear that there's only one real handler worthy of a whinny. Will they meet again? Will Albert, now a soldier, make it through the war in one piece? Are you prepared to sit through two-and-a-half hours to find out?
Featuring a dialogue that borders on the inane and a storyline about as complicated as a tea towel, War Horse might at first be regarded solely as a tale for children.
However, the graphic depictions of the Battle of the Somme, with lifeless bodies lying strewn across a muddy arena of death (rather incredibly captured), are probably a bit much for many younger viewers. Horse lovers will no doubt adore this film. Hundreds are used throughout (none hurt, apparently), and the incredible level of expertise and training used is instantly apparent. It should also go down well with those who might enjoy a cry into their popcorn, with heartstrings tugged at every available turn. But anyone hoping for a typical Spielberg adventure-fest will probably leave the cinema with a bit of a long face.
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