War Horse – review

Spielberg's version of the equine first world war yarn is an unconvincing attempt at summoning up the spirit of the time

Suffused in a buttery-digital glow, as if shot on special film made of liquid fudge, Steven Spielberg's disappointing, coercively sentimental version of War Horse has a baffling, soulless, artificial look. This is the story of young Albert Narracott, played by newcomer Jeremy Irvine, the son of tough West Country farming folk Ted and Rose (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson). He is so passionately devoted to their horse, Joey, that when the poor beast is sold off to the army in 1914, Albert lies about his age to join up, on a desperate mission to find Joey, and is destined for a heart-stopping reunion with his beloved horse on the field of battle itself.

I had hoped that this movie would combine ET-Spielberg and Saving-Private-Ryan-Spielberg in a massive double-whammy. Neither is forthcoming. The director's lack of real feeling for the locale or the era could not be more obvious. When the camera initially swoops over those rolling fields of Devon, in their supersaturated shades of green, it might as well be Kentucky, or County Tipperary, or an unexplored moon of Tatooine. And all the time, John Williams's orchestral score insistently jabs and prods us, so we know when to laugh, when to be scared, when to feel sad.

Michael Morpurgo's original novel is narrated by Joey himself in an interior monologue; the National theatre stage version by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott boldly sidestepped this by theatrically recreating Joey's world and making the horses stylised bamboo-figures. The Spielberg movie, within its realist conventions, can of course do neither, so the horses can only look eerily human in their pointedly clear reactions at key moments, as if they are on the point of speaking out, like the pig from Babe.

The battle scenes are heartfelt, but do not take us far from cliche, and are notable chiefly for Spielberg's repeated and squeamish reluctance to show the moment of death itself. The one moment at which the film relaxes and comes alive, however, is the famous no-man's-land sequence in which a British and German soldier quarrel over who gets to keep Joey: nicely done, and good performances from Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schönemann.

Spielberg's screenwriters are Lee Hall and Richard Curtis – formidable talents, but offering a Hollywoodised, genetically modified drama with an occasionally wacky sense of how people spoke at the time. "Thought you two had bottled out!" says one major to his brother officers, on the training ground. "As if!" another replies. Is it 1996?

I can only agree with those many bloggers pointing out that Curtis, in co-writing the final Blackadder episode on TV, set on the Western Front, once created a genuinely brilliant and passionate first world war drama. This isn't in the same league. It has moments of poignancy, and Tom Hiddleston is convincing as the decent Captain Nicholls, who promises to look after Joey. But this War Horse is a pre-packaged brand, rather than a movie.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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