A huge success as a book and an even bigger hit on stage, Michael Morpurgo’s heart-rending First World War tale of a Devon farm boy and his beloved horse reaches the screen with no less a whip-hand than Steven Spielberg at the reins.
On past form, you’d imagine that rider and mount would be a good match, yet it turns out that War Horse exposes Spielberg’s weaknesses as well as his strengths, letting him show off his technical mastery, but also allowing him to indulge his tendency to mawkishness.
The story’s a weepie, all right. A young chestnut colt, named Joey, gets bought at a Devon auction in an act of drunken bravado by tenant farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) to the dismay of his wife (Emily Watson). Yet Albert, their good-hearted teenage son (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) immediately bonds with the spirited horse and succeeds in taming and training him. The outbreak of the First World War separates the pair, however, with Joey becoming the mount of a British cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston), while Albert signs up as an infantryman in the hope of somehow being reunited with his former charge.
As Joey passes from hand to hand amidst the carnage and confusion of combat, Spielberg endeavours to capture the horrors of war while remaining within the realms of a family-friendly movie. (The explicit gore of Saving Private Ryan is a long way away.) One or two of the film’s set piece scenes make a powerful impact – such as an eerily beautiful, doomed cavalry charge through long grass and a later scene in which Joey, stranded between the opposing trenches in the hell of no man’s land, struggles to free himself from coils of barbed wire.
Overall, however, despite a thoroughbred cast, War Horse falls short because it tries too hard to tug our heartstrings. From John Williams’s over-insistent score to Janusz Kaminski’s syrupy cinematography, everything about the film seems calculated to push our emotional buttons. The fate of the story’s equine hero can’t help but be moving, but seeing a flesh-and-blood horse in the role on screen isn’t nearly as affecting, surprisingly, as watching life-sized puppets trot and canter across the stage in the National Theatre’s spellbinding production.
On general release from Friday 13th January.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.