Spielberg’s latest seems an odd choice for the filmmaker: an adaptation of a West End stage show, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel, that swept him off his feet – in particular, its fantastic puppetry. The emotional tale at its heart, though – one boy’s relationship with his horse, set against the backdrop of the First World War, complete with ‘Berg-ready absent father dynamics in Peter Mullan’s war-savaged alcoholic old man – makes it clear to see what appealed.
War Horse tells the story of Albert and equine Joey, the latter sent off to war where he passes through the hands – and lives – of an assortment of characters. Whereas the source novel was told from Joey’s view, Spielberg’s is more from that of the people Joey encounters: Hiddlestone’s soldier, Cumberbatch’s cavalryman, two German brothers, and a war-torn family in occupied France, among others.
While some chapters should have been excised, this structure mostly works, and Spielberg does conjure the cinematic grandeur you’d expect. Unfortunately, though, a misplaced sense of humour sullies the emotional thrust.
Whether this is exchanges with the Gerries across the trenches, or knockabout farm moments in Dorset (a tiresome farm goose?), when combined with the Great War’s pre-teen-friendly bloodless depiction, it results in a film that shies away
from the difficult moments, to its detriment. The odd scene excels despite this (a suddenly rider-less cavalry charge) but without the hard times hitting home, the climactic reuniting of boy and beast packs less punch than it should. 3/5
Good for: Fans of Spielberg on cynical-free form – even the Germans are cute!