Title: War Horse
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, David Kross, Matt Milne, Robert Emms, Eddie Marsan
There’s a reason why Steven Spielberg is so successful; he knows how to make a movie for everyone. Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Catch Me If You Can and more. Sure, not all of them can be considered pristine filmmaking, but still, generally all of his films are incredibly enjoyable and not only does War Horse follow suit in terms of entertainment and emotional value, but quality-wise, it’s certainly on the top tier.
After his pride gets the better of him during an auction, Ted Narracott’s (Peter Mullan) son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), becomes responsible for making the young horse Joey worth the hefty price his father paid. Albert dedicates every waking hour to Joey, training him to pull a plow so the Narracott’s can get their failing farm back in order and keep them from losing their home. However, just when everything seems to be going to plan, Joey is snatched up by World War I.
Never forgetting Albert’s training and care, Joey goes on to ride with the English army as well as the German army, making additional bonds along the way including British soldier Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and a young girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens). Meanwhile, Albert’s distracted from his longing for Joey by the war, getting thrown into battle himself.
War Horse gets to the point the moment the film begins, showing baby Joey’s very first days and the time he spends by his mother’s side. Of course, eventually mother and son must part and, even though you’ve only known Joey for a matter of minutes, it’s rather heart wrenching. Then again, the bond building and breaking is something the viewer should get used to, because War Horse’s segmented narrative sends Joey into the arms of a number of comrades only to be torn away shortly after.
Sure, that means the story jumps around quite a bit, but thanks to the time spent with the Narracott’s in the film’s first act, the family, and particularly Albert, ground and bookend the piece quite nicely. Not only is the family dynamic between Irvine, Mullan and Emily Watson on point, but Irvine’s connection with this horse is downright outstanding. Animal lover or not, there’s no denying that Joey and Albert share something overwhelmingly powerful.
While nobody else in the film quite matches the intensity of that relationship, War Horse does offer up a number of bonds, all of which feel real, but in wholly different manners. Hiddleston stands out as Captain Nicholls who rides Joey straight into enemy territory and as the person who introduces Joey to his closest animal companion, a black horse he meets while in the British army. On the other hand, David Kross’ character, a young German soldier, is quite memorable, not necessarily for his connection to Joey, but rather for what he experiences while in the horse’s presence.
With a running time of over two and a half hours, the film moves at an impeccable pace and that’s largely due to the fact that each mini-story has a degree of freshness, all while maintaining that connection to the very beginning of the tale. Rather than constantly flashback to a lonesome Albert sulking about his horse, War Horse has no trouble keeping the attention away from its leading man for quite some time, but then returning to him and making it feel as though you’ve never left, something that makes the final act of the film all the more powerful.
But, of course, none of these moments would work as well as they do if not for incredible performances. Irvine certainly leads the group, riding high on his notably beautiful relationship with his horse, but then we get characters like Toby Kebbell’s soldier who occupies a mere section of the film, but is unforgettable thanks to what he accomplishes with the top-notch script he’s working with. Kebbell in particular benefits from being part of one of War Horse’s most memorable scenes, a scene boasting some of the tightest and most striking writing seen all year. Then there’s Matt Milne who steps in as Albert’s hometown friend, Andrew. At first he seems to be a small writing blip, haphazardly inserted to show that Albert’s got a friend, but, in the tail end of the film, he proves to be a rather intricate asset in transplanting Albert’s quaint life on the farm into the despair of the trenches.
As for those locations, the production design is absolutely incredible. Pair that with some wildly talented animal actors and you get shots of Joey running through vicious fields of barbed wire and other more majestic material of a whole cavalry of horses dashing across a field. It’s films like War Horse that should make us question the need for 3D at all when such an incredible degree of depth is achieved through detailed set design and pitch perfect camerawork alone.
Yes, you can point a finger at War Horse for bearing some of Spielberg’s recurring issues, namely the push to make the piece family-friendly and as endearing as possible to the point of mild melodrama, but what’s wrong with that when it works so well? War Horse has absolutely no trouble holding your attention and then, what it does with it is utterly profound. Not only is this a film that takes you along for an intense ride, but it’s a piece of material with the power to make you feel to an extraordinary extent.