Adapted from the prolific play of the same name (which is itself adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s much loved book), Steven Spielberg’s World War One epic gallops out of the blocks but tails off dramatically in the second half.
Ye Olde England. The year is nineteen-o-something. A quaint, rural village in Devon gazes on fondly as a drunken man (Peter Mullan) purchases a horse inadequate for his farming needs, at a price that jeopardises his family’s livelihood. After being berated by his wife (Emily Watson), his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) takes a shine to the animal and eventually rears him into a fine steed, developing a strong bond between the two of them.
Flash forward a few years and war looms. The call to arms is nation-wide and horses are not exempt. To Albert’s great distress, the animal is carted off to be ridden by moustached men into battle. At this point we are introduced to the characters of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddlestone) and Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch). They are two of the finest young(ish) British actors working today, and that shows. Their presence is very notable; together they produce a few of the film’s finest scenes.
Unfortunately, the narrative is juddered by war at this moment, sending us sprawling through several different plot lines encompassing a variety of characters. We see the war from the perspective of the German infantry, some French farmers, and others. The issue is, none of the characters ever replicate that brief dynamism sparked between Hiddlestone and Cumberbatch (a partnership that I would love to see again on screen).
As the film trundles on, it begins to feel rather flat, meandering towards its telegraphed conclusion. It’s not dull or tiresome, but it lacks the levels of interest found in the earlier chapters.
The cinematography, while saccharine and filled with simple colouring, is apt. It fills the entire film with a soft-focus and warmth, capturing a mood that is also replicated in the sweeping score.
Visually it may be pleasing but it also verges on the obvious. Take for example, the majority of the characters having piercingly blue yes. Whether this is CGI, contact lenses or remarkable casting, it is thoroughly evident — the point being the innocence of the men, the youthful soldiers who fight the conflicts. To quote a Katherine Hinkson poem, “smooth-cheeked and golden, food for shells and guns,” and the film just about captures that ideal. However, while War Horse may be a war critique, it is not a deep or interesting one. After all, it’s primarily a movie for kids, and as such the real horrors of conflict cannot be depicted in a way that is remotely fitting.
Not only are the eyes on show an alarming shade of fluorescent blue, they also always look to be on the verge of tears (see header image). This, I suppose, is preparation for the presumed inevitable waterworks at the denouement. The problem for me was that I didn’t cry; it was too blunt an instrument. The film clearly expected the audience to well up and as a result lacked the subtlety or immersion needed to make that happen.
War Horse is a decent exponent of a Spielberg film, but ultimately it’s not up there with his best. Most cinema-goers will enjoy it, and it certainly doesn’t feel its 146-minute runtime, but it’s neither deep nor lasting. I expect it to fall short at the major awards.