War horse is spectacular, emotional and occasionally funny. I haven’t read Michael Morpugo’s book or seen the play but this film has Steven Spielberg written all over it. However there is a certain Britishness to it courtesy of the screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. If the trench scenes remind you of the end of Blackadder Goes Forth it maybe because Richard Curtis wrote both.
War Horse tells the story of a horse called Joey who is broken in and trained by a teenage boy called Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Both the horse and boy are sent to the frontline of the first world war but on seperate trajectories. Joey is sold to a cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) who promises return him to Albert at the end of the war. Albert is too young to go with Joey but joins up later. The majority of the film then follows Joey through contact with people from all sides. While the Germans en masse are shown as stereotypically nasty, selfish and greedy the theme that unites all sides is that when people love animals they are humanised. Every person who comes into close contact with Joey is shown to be kind.
There are many heart-stopping moments. The battle scenes from a suicidal cavalry charge to the Somme are all remarkable. The evolution of war from the cavalry to mustard gas and tanks is well illustrated. A lot of the most disturbing things happen just out of shot but you know what has happened and see the after effects. As you may expect from the director who made us cry with ET, Schindlers List and Saving Private Ryan there are no shortage of moments to challenge even the hardest hearts not to shed a tear but just as you are crying a lighter moment will appear and there are genuine laughs at times. It is a traumatic 2 1/2 hours but 2 1/2 hours which passes quickly.
If Uggie from the Artist
deserves an Oscar then so does Joey. I am not particularly fond of horses (terrified of them might be a more accurate description of my feelings) but he and his co-star Topthorne give amazing performances. I didn’t think a horse could express so much emotion including love and fear. While Joey is undoubtedly the star Jeremy Irvine is sincere and believable throughout in an excellent piece of casting. Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson, David Thewlis and Peter Mullan are just some of the faces who make up a great supporting cast.
This isn’t a Saving Private Ryan for the first world war. Spielberg has taken a children’s book and turned it into an epic with emotional depth but it is worth remembering it is a tale for older children or teenagers. Many of the children watching won’t have met people who remember the second world war let alone the first. This is a reminder of what their great-great-grandfathers suffered told through a beautiful story of friendship and humanity. In fact it is a reminder to us all.
I would say go and see it but I don’t want to watch it again!