In Devon at the outbreak of World War I, Albert Narracott's (Jeremy Irvine) beloved horse Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. Joey serves in the British and German armies, which takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before being alone in No Man's Land. But Albert cannot forget Joey, and, still not old enough to enlist in the army, he embarks on a dangerous mission to find and bring Joey home.
At 65, Steven Spielberg arguably is at the peak of his creative powers. This year he directed War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (which sadly for him will compete for audiences in Australia as both open in Australia on December 26), he’s now filming Lincoln and he executive produced Cowboys & Aliens, Real Steel, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Super 8 as well as several TV projects.
War Horse ranks as one of his finest achievements as the filmmaker turns his attention to the First World War, evoking the same kind of visceral power and gritty realism that he brought to WWII in Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.
Spielberg expertly fuses several elements: coming-of-age story, war movie, rollicking adventure and human/equine drama, lightened with a few comic touches.
At its considerable heart, this is a stirring story of courage, determination and sacrifice as the war is viewed through the prisms of a young Englishman and his horse.
The finely honed screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis is adapted from Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel and Nick Stafford’s West End play which it inspired. That’s an interesting combination of writers, Hall bringing the dramatic finesse which enlivened his Billy Elliot and Curtis the blend of pathos and comedy which he displayed in movies such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and Four Weddings and a Funeral, and it works.
In his feature film debut, Jeremy Irvine is superb as Albert, the son of a struggling couple who have a farm in Devon. It’s love at first sight when Albert sees a neighbour’s horse giving birth.
Albert’s boozy, gruff dad Ted (Peter Mullan), a Boer War veteran, buys the thoroughbred colt at auction for 30 guineas ($52 dollars but a small fortune in that era), outbidding his greedy landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). His stoical wife Rose (Emily Watson) is appalled. Albert christens the horse Joey and trains the nag to plough fields.
As Britain declares war on Germany, Ted is deeply in debt and sells Joey to the Cavalry without telling his son, who’s distraught. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) assures Albert he’ll take good care of the horse and return it to him after the war. Nicholls and his friend Major Stewart (a pukka Benedict Cumberbatch) head to France and Joey forms a bond with the major’s horse, Topthorn.
A cavalry charge against German troops who flee is superbly staged and photographed. Joey and Topthorn wind up in German hands, yoked to ambulances and cared for by two brothers (David Kross, Leonard Carow). Later Joey is sheltered by an elderly, feisty French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his grand daughter (Celine Buckens).
Nothing more of the plot should be revealed except to note there are some thrilling, wonderfully orchestrated battle scenes at the Somme and there’s an emotional finale at the end of the conflict.
Spielberg’s gift for storytelling propels the narrative although the section involving the farmer and his grand daughter drags and the ending feels a little manipulative and contrived, relying on several unlikely coincidences.
His longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is at the top of his game, blending dazzling panoramic shots with intimate close-ups. He’s especially inventive in photographing Joey (numerous horses were used) at high speed, and in putting the viewer right into the muddy, smoke-filled trenches and a barbed-wired-strewn battlefield. The excellent sound design and effects heighten the realism.
One other minor criticism: The score by John Williams is occasionally cloying and intrusive, over-embellishing a movie where emotions are aroused by the characters and events without the need for trilling violins and thumping orchestrals.