Steven Spielberg’s (The Adventures of Tintin) latest film, War Horse, opens with picturesque shots of rolling British countryside set to a boisterous John Williams‘ score. You’d be forgiven for thinking Spielberg and his screenwriters, Lee Hall and Richard Curtis working from Michael Morpurgo’s novel and the Tony-winning Broadway play, were desperate to choke sobs out of their audience from the opening moments. Even if you’re not crying yet, they will keep trying and trying until only the blackest of hearts are left un-moved. I guess I should hand in my organ donation card because I clearly don’t have a heart judging from the dismissive reaction I had to this patently artificial film.
The final days before WWI sees a young boy, Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), taking on the duty of bringing a horse named Joey up to scratch for ploughing his father’s (Peter Mullan, Trainspotting) field. After the two form an unbreakable bond, Joey is purchased by Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, Thor) and from this point on Spielberg’s film follows this beautiful equine creature throughout the years that WWI prevailed over Europe. Joey finds himself amongst some peculiarly English-speaking Germans (David Kross, The Reader), a sickly girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup, A Prophet) and many more. Of course, all roads lead back to Albert, but this being a 146-minute war movie, it’s not going to be easy.
I get it, I really do. Spielberg isn’t hiding his influences here, shoving John Ford and Gone with the Wind so far down the audience’s throat that they can taste them. He’s trying to make a heart-tugging account of a boy and his horse with all the classical filmmaking techniques that he grew up admiring, but where schmaltz can work when done delicately and with precision, Spielberg and his collaborators have lacquered this baby up in so many shiny coats of manipulative drivel that it borders on spoof.
Utterly predictable to the very end, War Horse is a failure due to its inability to do anything that we haven’t already seen, and this is a war movie that’s suitable for younger audiences (it is rated M) so don’t go in expecting any of Spielberg’s famed Saving Private Ryan action sequences. In their place we get characters mulling over what it means to forge a connection to a beloved animal plus an inordinate amount of time watching Emily Watson (Oranges and Sunshine) attending to her garden. Pet owners will be the first to shed tears, but outside of a distressing sequence set amidst the “no man’s land” of war-torn Europe, it fails to craft a compelling war movie or a modern day Black Beauty.
War Horse is released in Australia on December 26th
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Toby Kebbell, David Kross and Eddie Marsan