Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson
Runtime: 146 min
As a stream of war adaptations surge onto screen, War Horse; based upon the novel by Michael Morpurgo, stands alone. The film does not lessen the contribution of the men who partipated in the conflict, but instead raises awareness about the work and treatment of the horses. An aspect sometimes overlooked in the wake of men’s plight, they are at last treated ‘like the solider[s] they really are.’
The epic opens with scenes of idyllic Dartmoor hills conveying their untamed beauty, sweeping broad vistas tinged with orange and peppered with granite. These shots juxtapose expertly with the bleak glimpses of trench life as the coloured panoramas fade. Set to John Williams’ lush and dynamic score, Speilberg’s emphasis upon aesthetics and cinematography bring the era to life in achingly stunning fashion.
Although nations are presented as veritable caricatures, and characters named Gunter speak in mock German accents, it is a necessary device in a film for the family; and moments of levity emerge from exploring these stereotypes. In most, the actors deal with this admirably, the Devonshire drawls and European tones lilting through the film’s dialogue. However, at times Albert (Jeremy Irvine), in the throws of full youthful intensity, oversteps the mark; the ideal is stretched and moulded, dripping with naivety and an overt sense of sentimentality. Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls provided an apt amount of fatalist calm, embodied in a set of unending blue eyes, and Emily Watson as Rose Narracott was hearty and gentle in her portrayal of both a mother’s and a farmer’s wife’s struggle.
However, it is not the supposed protagonist Alby who carries the film, instead Joey infuses the scenes and lifts the drama, the figures that surround him merely pawns in the horse’s war. Spielberg’s attention to detail is astounding; intimate and intelligent, Joey is presented with masterful intuition; the linchpin, holding the characters and narrative in orbit. This is successfully illustrated in the combined efforts of an English and a German solider attempting to free him whilst trapped in the centre of No Man’s Land.
The film provides a welcome relief in an industry seemingly compelled to sexualise narratives, and saturate them with graphic violence. Spielberg’s gentle portrayal simultaneously deals with the horror and hope that defined World War One, personified in the love of one boy for his horse.