Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson
Runtime: 146 minutes
Labels akin to "Typical Spielberg pat" have been placed on War Horse, a picture that was destined to divide audiences. One aspect of the film that has been overwhelmingly one-sided with audiences are the visuals, which have been described as breathtaking, and they are worthy of such praise. I was engrossed and swept up by almost every meticulous, stunning scene. However, the visuals weren't enough for many - the complaints that I have heard vary from the film being sickeningly sweet to the film attempting to tell too many stories - but upon watching the film, I have come to a realisation: cheesiness isn't always a flaw. The film is undoubtedly sappy, and the events so miraculous that a five year-old would struggle to believe them, but this begs the question: isn't that one of the reasons that we go to the cinema? For miracles, for extraordinary tales, and to have, well, great cinematic experiences. For me, who enjoys these experiences, War Horse succeeded with flying colours. However, visuals and cinematic aesthetics are not the only areas in which War Horse shines.
I liked pretty much every character. Each one had some essence of individuality, and I enjoyed watching them progress, whether their screen time was brief or prolonged. Jeremy Irvine succeeds in making Albert Narracott a classic Spielberg lead, offering charm and personality at every turn. Peter Mullan and Emily Watson are strong as Albert's parents; Ted, a struggling farmer who purchases a horse - later named Joey - to plough his field so he can grow crops and pay his landlord Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis), and Rose, a strong-headed, family-orientated housewife. Joey, who initially struggles to perform his task, eventually manages to plough the field, thanks to arduous and thorough training from Albert, whom he forms a friendship with. This friendship is torn apart, however, when the war begins, and Ted sells Joey to Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) for the war, after heavy rain destroys the crops that had been planted. Despite Albert's protests, Joey is taken to war, on a promise from Nicholls that he will look after Joey just as closely as Albert did whilst raising him. We are then taken on a journey through the lives of Joey and Albert, both affected by the war, yet still connected by friendship.
As cliche as it may be at times, the story is nonetheless gripping. The narrative is essentially your typical underdog story; but instead of the central character being a human faced with a fight or a crucial sports match, we are shown a horse who has to overcome war against all odds. This tale is shown beautifully and lovingly, with the horse encountering various people and issues. Joey, along with his fellow war horse Topthorn, are taken into care by a little girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), albeit briefly. In the short while that we are with these two characters, they are developed fantastically. I grew swiftly enchanted with the little girl because of what is revealed about her as a person: how fragile she is physically, but how strong-willed she is mentally. I was slightly miffed about how short her time onscreen was, as I feel she could have developed even more over the course of the film, if she had been included. Despite this, engaging characters are plentiful, and the story was gripping enough to allow me to forgive this.
At certain points, the pacing doesn't flow too well. The transitions between a few of the stories are slightly jarring, and the film does burn through a lot of characters in a short period of time. However, I am willing to forgive this, as I interpreted it as a method of relating back to war, the setting and theme of the film. Perhaps Spielberg's intention was to make certain patches of the film incoherent to represent what war can mean for many: separation, confusion, heartbreak and loss. In all honesty, I felt that the film reflected war in a very moving and gritty way. All of the scenes which included battles were very powerful, and a particular scene in which Joey runs through No Man's Land, jumps trenches, falls over multiple times and eventually is caught in barbed wire nearly brought me to tears. The subsequent scene - where we see two soldiers of opposing British and German sides travelling to the middle of No Man's Land to free the horse from the barbed wire - was probably my favourite in the entire film. It's an unlikely scenario, but beautiful nonetheless.
War Horse concludes with what many will interpret as a happy ending. While this is true, we are reminded that many of the side characters have died, and also of the loss of around fifteen million people during the war. I personally felt that this ending was pitch-perfect, reflecting the tragic theme of the film, but offering us solace in the joy of some people. War Horse is undoubtedly recommended to anyone who loves cinema and enjoys being swept up by gorgeous scenery, a wonderful score and a strong story with (mostly) memorable characters. For anyone who hates cinematic miracles and can't handle a little bit of pat, stay clear. I expected to like War Horse, but not nearly as much as I actually did, and I wouldn't have a moment's hesitation in watching it again. Everyone involved has helped to construct an entertaining, moving, cinematic and aesthetically pleasing picture in War Horse, an authentic Spielberg venture worthy of my 146 minutes.