For decades the Academy has snubbed Steven Spielberg (Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan? Really?), in my mind the greatest mainstream director of all time, for a much deserved best picture gong, Schindler’s List excepted, so it is no great surprise that this late in his career he has made such an award-ceremony pandering film. This is not to say War Horse is a bad effort as such, more that in making something with such a clear aim, ‘Berg has perhaps limited himself in creating another war masterpiece, in this tale of a boy’s relationship with his equine companion through the horror of the First World War.
The first thing to realise when going into War Horse is to expect neither the emotional involvement of ET or Schindler’s nor the epic combat of Private Ryan (hey, it’s a 12a), and that will result in far less disappointment in Spielberg’s first live-action film since 2005’s excellent Munich. The screenplay is,well, not brilliant (but stops short of having a horse voice-over, the technique used in the source novel). It functions perfectly well, but rarely shines with country bumpkin and posh post-Victorian dialogue jarring with some genuinely anachronistic lines, and does become rather muddled at points, and in one particular 40 minutes gets a bit ‘where are we now?’ ‘weren’t they on a farm?’ ‘oh, no a horse died’ ‘oh, look it’s him from the Killing’. Despite all this, it still manages to elicit an emotional punch when it really wants to, and it is pretty much guaranteed to leave any room at least sniffling at the nice horsies, in a way unseen since probably Seabiscuit.
Jeremy Irvine does an unspectacular job as the horribly named Albert, delivering his slightly cumbersome dialogue in a slightly cumbersome manner. He speaks rather slowly throughout the entirety of the film, and many of the more able actors are given far too little screen time, especially poor old Tom Hiddlestone. However, the star of the show is most definitely Joey, the titular horse and whilst it may just be the human condition of anthropomorphizing animals he seems to convey an actual range of emotions.
But whilst the Horse is certainly covered, War makes far less of an impression, with Spielberg shying away from actually showing the moment of death, and no trench/No Man’s Land scene manages to conjure up even a fraction of the visceral punch that Ryan’s D-day opening delivers hugely for 20 full minutes. England’s green and pleasant land is well represented and there are some nice visual touches and some nice music (not Williams’ best work but that would be nigh-on impossible, given that he also did Jaws and Raiders), but the film is not technically perfect, with some noticeably shonky editing pulling the audience out of the experience
Overall, War Horse is a good, if not great, film, but is geared far too obviously towards the Academy, which feels like a limitation for Spielberg more than anything. To have truly shined it would have needed a snappier screenplay and someone like Andrew Garfield in the lead role, to add sparkle to proceedings. If Saving Private Ryan is at a constant gallop, War Horse never goes beyond a canter.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis
Stars: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Nicolas Bro
Run Time: 146 minutes