An unashamedly old-fashioned romp through World War I on the back of a horse named Joey, Stephen Spielberg's interpretation of Michael Morpurgo's novel is part sentimental family film and part brutal and grisly war epic.
It's a curious mix.
Adapted into an award-winning stage play in 2007, War Horse in the hands of Spielberg is a restrained epic shot in a rich, dense palette, featuring deliberate performances that struggle to make an emotional impact. Though Spielberg tones down the action in comparison to his Saving Private Ryan, impressive battle scenes make the point that war was hell for horses as well as soldiers. The film follows Joey from his home in Devon where he has been trained to work the land by young Albert (Irvine) who is devastated when Joey is conscripted into the army and sent to France. Ridden into battle by an English officer, Joey finds himself in the hands of the Germans, and a French farmer and his daughter, among others.
Screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis have cleverly weaved together different strands of what is an exhausting story, with Joey the thread uniting different perspectives on the war. Spielberg doesn't do quite so well, spending more time than necessary establishing Albert's relationship with Joey, and Joey's experiences with a jam-making grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and his spirited granddaughter Emile (Celine Buckens).
The horse's performance is a remarkable feat of animal training, but set alongside melodramatic performances from the rest of the cast and fake-looking sunsets, Joey's journey simply becomes too hard to believe. Adding to this feeling is the stark contrast between the story's far-fetched fiction and the haunting, very real war setting.
Spielberg gets you in the end though, knowing when to throw in a breathtaking shock, a touch of humour, or a heartfelt moment. At times he really pulls on the heartstrings and throws them all in at once.
War Horse has an unapologetically nostalgic feel which will appeal to an older audience; young animal lovers are probably best kept at a safe distance. Though Spielberg makes sure the ending is as happy as it can be at the end of a devastating war, there are scenes, with and without animals, that the more innocent may find disturbing.
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 146 mins
Rating: M (violence)
Verdict: Nicely shot but nostalgic, drawn-out epic