Steven Spielberg ambitiously attempts to merge his talents as an entertainer of children and a chronicler of mass devastation in “War Horse.” Conveying all manner of noble ideas about the savagery of war and the essential decency of mankind through one steed’s dramatic WWI journey, this beautifully composed picture brings a robust physicality to tried-and-true source material, but falls short of the sustained narrative involvement and emotional drive its resolutely old-fashioned storytelling demands. Nonetheless, impeccable craft, pedigree and unique appeal to heartland and overseas audiences will give DreamWorks’ year-end prestige release strong theatrical and ancillary legs.
Michael Morpurgo’s popular 1982 novel placed young readers in the mind of Joey, a horse raised by an English farmboy, sold into war in 1914 and acquired by various foreign hands along a harrowing tour of the Western front. Nick Stafford’s stage play (which bowed at the West End in 2007 before its Tony-winning Broadway run this year) necessarily dispensed with the equine psychology but invested Joey with considerable soul, using exquisite puppetry and theatrical sleight-of-hand to convey that this strong yet fragile animal was indeed an exceptional being.
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This unique perspective is one of the first casualties of Spielberg’s visually expansive approach: While it belongs to a tradition of episodic animal-centric movies that includes Robert Bresson’s donkey classic “Au hasard Balthazar” and numerous versions of “Black Beauty,” the film winds up literalizing a story that derived much of its power from the imaginative leap it required of a live audience. What “War Horse” gains in the sweeping pictorial beauty and persuasive realism of Janusz Kaminski’s widescreen images, it loses in thematic clarity and dramatic focus; neither horses nor humans here merit prolonged engagement as Joey gallops from one set of thinly sketched characters to another.
Further diluting the impact of Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’ adaptation is the sense that, with the notable exception of one sequence, the material hasn’t received the full benefit of Spielberg’s expressive powers. A PG-13 example of what might be termed mature family fare, the 146-minute picture will prove too long and intermittently intense for small fry, but also too repetitive and simplistic to engage adults on more than an earnestly prosaic level. One emerges admiring the film’s unimpeachable antiwar message and the consummate care and overall restraint with which Spielberg advances it, but also sensing that something crucial has been lost in translation.
A scenic prologue establishes not only the film’s central relationship but also its key dramatic methods: pure, forthright emotions, pastoral visuals, mythic aspirations, insistent music and an exalted view of its titular species. A foal is born in the Devon countryside, and it’s love at first sight for farmer’s son Albert Narracott (soulful newcomer Jeremy Irvine), who names him Joey. When his hard-drinking father, Ted (Peter Mullan), foolishly purchases Joey at auction, Albert happily takes on the seemingly impossible task of teaching this bay thoroughbred to plow.
Nonetheless, with the encouragement of Albert’s long-suffering mother (Emily Watson), boy and horse succeed, in a sequence that richly conveys the mud, sweat and satisfaction of manual labor. More typical of the film’s initial stretch, however, is a cloying strain of bucolic whimsy driven by John Williams’ pushy score and too many comic-relief cutaways to a honking goose. It’s therefore more welcome than it should be when the war begins and Albert must bid a sad farewell to Joey, who is purchased by kindly Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and, though even less suited to battle than to farmwork, deployed in a surprise attack on a German encampment in occupied France.
Tackling the canvas of WWI for the first time in a career full of WWII pictures, Spielberg seizes upon the period’s more rudimentary combat style with a typically strong sense of staging. Though free of overt bloodshed, the ambush sequence is surprisingly ferocious, emphasizing the Brits’ ruthless onslaught and the Germans’ helpless surprise in such a way as to drain any thrills from the experience. The gravity is compounded when Kaminski’s camera pulls back, a la “Gone With the Wind,” to acknowledge the loss of innumerable cavalrymen, their mounts and an entire tradition of battle in the wake of the Germans’ superior firepower.
It’s as plain and unequivocating a condemnation of violence as Spielberg has yet delivered, and one of the rare scenes in which this “War Horse” fully seems to live and breathe onscreen. Unfortunately, the rest of the film amounts to a plodding refrain of the same pacifist theme as Joey is briefly commandeered by two brothers in the German army (Leonhard Carow and “The Reader’s” David Kross) before falling into the care of a French farmer (Niels Arestrup, “A Prophet”) and his spirited granddaughter, Emilie (Celine Buckens).
All these owners, regardless of nationality, are portrayed as downtrodden, fundamentally decent souls caught up in circumstances beyond their control, an honorable notion that plays out with a few lump-in-the-throat moments but little in the way of narrative urgency; one doesn’t feel carried along by tides of conflict so much as carefully ushered from one safe house to the next. For all the film’s efforts to dramatize the senseless, arbitrary brutality of war, its polished surface rarely allows a gut-level sense of peril to materialize, so tidy are the story’s dramatic ironies and so transparent the manner in which the characters are made to function along the way.
It doesn’t help that even the French and Germans speak English here, a commercial decision that detracts from the film’s otherwise faultless verisimilitude and seems uniquely jarring for a story in which specific nationalities play so crucial a role. When a German soldier notes, “I speak English well,” you can’t help noting he’s hardly alone.
Despite these hurdles, the actors do much to distinguish themselves in their allotted screentime. Mullan, Watson and Irvine give warm, expressive life to the hard-luck Narracotts, while the excellent Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, as the captain’s surlier comrade, ease the film’s tricky shift into the war zone. Best of all is Arestrup’s piercingly reserved performance as the aging Frenchman, radiating dignity, defensiveness and regret, but also a gentle, hard-won appreciation for life’s essentials.
Predicated largely on the inherent grace and dignity of horses, their willingness to bear men’s burdens and remind them of their better selves, the production brings these high-minded sentiments to stirring cinematic life through a massive four-legged ensemble skillfully wrangled by master/trainer Bobby Lovgren. Lensing fully harnesses the surpassing visual glories of the English countryside, an endlessly accommodating backdrop for the farming villages and barbed-wire trenches of Rick Carter’s production design. Sound work is minutely attuned to hoofbeats as well as gunfire, and even when momentum flags, Michael Kahn’s editing maintains a sense of flow.