After what has been, by his standards, a fairly restful period (in which we have seen only one film – Indiana Jones 4 – with his name in the director slot), Steven Spielberg returned with two films in 2011. The first, his interpretation of Tintin, was fairly successful in what it attempted, and War Horse is too, with a few caveats, meaning this year has been an altogether a decent one for the veteran filmmaker.
Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kamiński get things moving in picturesque Devon, where Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) has just spent what little savings his family had on a stallion, even though they need a horse to help them plough the rocky field outside their farmhouse. His wife Rose (Emily Watson) is horrified – after all, their sleazy landlord (David Thewlis) is already breathing down their necks – but Albert (Jeremy Irvine), their young son, christens the horse Joey and begins to form a deep bond with him.
In these opening scenes, Kamiński simply points his camera at the gorgeous Devon landscape, and we are immediately drawn in. Joey – played by seven horses over the course of the film – is gradually trained among the quiet fields in a series of playful, almost Malick-esque scenes, where horse and boy romp together in mainly wordless communication while nature fills in the gaps. It’s an endearing introduction, even if it does also serve to introduce Albert’s friend Andrew (Matt Milne), who is the film’s most irritating supporting character; a gurning simpleton who grins gormlessly through most of his lines. The family goose is more effective and gets twice as many laughs.
When World War 1 is announced, Ted dispiritingly sells Joey to an army officer called Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and Albert and his horse are separated. The emotions conjured in these scenes don’t feel forced, because we already believe that Albert and Joey have a connection. Hiddleston – like many other famous faces who turn up for a fairly short time – does well in his role. All this leads to a nicely shot, kinetic battle scene in a German camp, which is completely bloodless but still effective.
So far, so good, but it’s at this point that the film loses its way. The story is now Joey’s to command, and the machinations of the narrative have him travelling with deserting young German troops before hiding out with an elderly French farmer and the young girl in his care, Emilie. Then we’re back with the Germans and off to war again, before a series of reunions can begin. Incidentally, don’t think you’re free from Andrew’s grimacing, even in the trenches of No Man’s Land.
The story slows to a crawl in this section because the weight of Joey’s relationship with Albert, or indeed with Captain Nicholls, is completely off-screen. Indeed, the most believable and touching comradeship he finds is with another horse. The scenes on the French farm, in particular, feel forced and inconsequential. Once things get back on track in No Man’s Land, the film picks up again, and builds to a predictable but heart-warming conclusion. Before that, we get a powerful scene involving barbed wire (which could distress very young viewers) followed by a touching, if overly dragged out, conversation in the quiet mists when all the gunfire has stopped.
The film is nicely shot and ultimately earns its right to tug on your heart strings, even if it does so quite blatantly at times. There are some laughs, some good set pieces, and nicely complementary supporting performances. If it lags in the middle, it can be forgiven, because it has a warm heart despite its inconsistencies.