Movie Review: War Horse
By Edwin Davies
January 3, 2012
War Horse is a heartfelt, affecting film about the devastating power of war that is almost undone by the incredibly silly conceit at its heart. Based on Michael Morpurgo's children's book and the absurdly popular stage play that it inspired, Steven Spielberg's film tells the story of World War I not through the eyes of the soldiers fighting it, but by following the journey of a horse named Joey, who is raised by a young man named Albie (Jeremy Irvine) in Devon, then sold to the Army by Albie's father (Peter Mullan) to pay the rent on their farm. Once he is on the continent, Joey is passed from owner to owner, and through him Spielberg depicts the various ways in which war affects all those who are touched by it.
The idea of using an animal as a means of examining the different sides of a story is not a bad one - Robert Bresson used more or less the same idea in Au Hazard Balthazar - and the episodic structure of the film lends itself naturally to exploring the various facets of war since it provides connecting tissue by which the disparate events and characters can be joined together. The problem comes from the opening segment, which is dedicated to Albie's time training Joey before the war and spends much too long establishing their relationship, to the detriment of the film since it only serves to delay the far superior movie that lays beyond the first act.
That a young man would become emotionally attached to an animal is hardly preposterous, as anyone who has ever had a pet will be able to attest, but Spielberg and his writers, Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, hammer the point over and over, leaving no room for any doubt that Albie really cares about Joey, who is a remarkable horse, a fact we know because everyone says it at every possible opportunity. This repetition, coupled with the sluggish pace compared to everything that comes after, causes the film to falter right out of the gate. Even David Thewlis as a landlord so devious he seems to be actively trying not to twirl his luxurious moustache throughout can't inject much life into these sequences, which also try to invest way too much importance into ploughing a field when the audience knows that World War I is just around the corner.
Once the focus shifts from the Horse to the War part of its title, Spielberg's film becomes a far more compelling and muscular beast indeed. The vignettes that follow Joey's purchase by the Army are fleet by comparison, displaying a breadth and scope that the necessarily limited opening scenes could only hint at. Of the episodes, easily the most compelling features Tom Hiddleston as a young officer who rides Joey into battle. The sequence, which also boasts a fine performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as Hiddleston's superior, captures the arrogance of those who are willing to sacrifice the lives of men and beasts on a whim, as well as the heartrending tragedy of so many young men dying for no good reason. Nowhere is this more beautifully conveyed than in a series of shots which show the British cavalry charging into a nest of German machine guns, the guns opening fire, then a stream of riderless horses leaping over the weapon emplacements. It's a moving sequence that is shot through with quiet humanism that is vintage Spielberg.