War Horse

War Horse

***1/2

Reviewed by: Donald Munro

From the quaint rustic setting of a Devon farm to the battlefields of the Somme, War Horse follows a horse, Joey, through his experience of World War One. Spielberg captures the rugged beauty of Dartmoor and the serenity of the French countryside but the battlefields are a little too glossy and well lit, the mud a little too clean. It doesn't quite chime with footage shot at the time or the accounts of soldiers. The film often errs on the sentimental and avoids the harsh realities of the Great War.

The story starts with a petty conflict at a horse market. Farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) and his landlord engage in a bidding war over Joey. Ted wins Joey with a bid of 30 Guineas but in the process risks his tenancy. He returns to his angry but forgiving wife Rose (Emily Watson) and son Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Albert trains and forms a strong bond with Joey. The Narracotts and the other Devon folk seem familiar and the pre-war story is gentle. All the actors put in good performances but the way the film is shot is a little too saccharine. There are touching scenes with snippets of humour on the farm which counterpoint the film's later subject matter.

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At the outbreak of war Ted sells Joey to the British army, leaving Albert distraught. As a cavalry horse Joey take part in a disastrous charge. Captured by the Germans he and another horse, Topthorn, are put to work pulling hospital wagons and then field guns, a task that kills Topthorn. Their story is told as a series of small episodes. A problem with the story is that it relies on various characters cooing over Joey the miracle horse. Oh look at that horse, it must have Lassie-like qualities. Why is this horse so special? What do people see in him?

War Horse doesn't really address the horrific nature of war and the Great War in particular. It hides it. For instance, when two teenage German soldiers are shot for desertion the camera stays well back. It anonymises them. There shouldn't be huge amounts of blood and gore in a children's film but death should have faces because it has to matter, it has to have impact. Otherwise it is sugar coating war and suffering. Only when Joey is caught in barbed wire does the film have that sort of impact.

War Horse is not so much a story of universal suffering told through the eyes of a horse but a Boys' Own ripping yarn. It is a good yarn well paced and well made. At times it is spectacular to watch. Its main problem is over sentimentality, especially at the end of the film. Although the last scenes are beautiful to look at there is something reminiscent of the dollop of sentimentality at the end of Saving Private Ryan where Ryan visits the cemetery.

Reviewed on: 12 Jan 2012
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A young man signs us to try and stay close to his beloved horse during World War One.
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Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis

Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Joey, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Peter Mullan

Year: 2011

Runtime: 146 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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