The great power of film is its ability to draw the viewer into a lifelike world, which is one of the best arguments for seeing movies on a big screen – when the picture fills your vision, it has that much more effect. While War Horse does pull you in with impressive visuals and a moving story, problems in the adaptation undercut the experience by continually reminding how artificial this world is.
The movie tells the story of a magnificent horse that captivates his every handler on a journey through England and France during World War I. In 1914, months before the outbreak of what will become the Great War, alcoholic farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys a horse at auction for an outrageous sum and soon regrets it, since, as a thoroughbred, it won’t have the strength to plow a field. But this is a strong horse, and Ted’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), having already fallen in love with it from afar, vows to train it himself, naming it Joey. Albert and Joey form a close bond that’s eventually broken when Ted is forced to sell Joey to the war effort as a cavalry horse for Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). Albert swears to Joey that the two will be together again.
In France, Nicholls’ unit fails miserably in its first battle, and Joey is captured by the German army. Over the next few years, he changes hands frequently, inspiring everyone with his formidable strength and courage. Meanwhile, Albert enlists in the army, hopeful to keep his promise. Is it possible that these two can survive the war and find each other once again?
You’d have to be a little shell-shocked yourself to not guess the answer to that question, but the story is in the journey, not the conclusion. War Horse is directed by Steven Spielberg, who has created a suitably grand spectacle as a backdrop for these very personal stories. Similarly to Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg depicts the horrors of battle with amazing intensity for a PG-13 film, but he also subverts expectations by keeping the violence off-screen until later in the film, when Albert joins the war. It’s a clever move that highlights the brutality of trench warfare.
Unfortunately, in the quieter moments the movie breaks down. It’s adapted from the wildly popular play by Nick Stafford, itself an adaptation of the novel by Michael Morpurgo. But screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis don’t seem to have done much with the play script. In nearly every scene, characters stand and make long speeches, or engage in stilted dialogue that all but calls for spotlights to be shone on them. This type of thing works wonderfully on a stage, but a film is not a play, and the effect here is distracting. The final sequence, an emotionally powerful moment, seems so much like something you’d see at the Princess of Wales Theatre that its impact is lost. And Irvine’s performance suffers especially – his gee-whiz innocence would no doubt drive the play, but it’s less believable on film.
Notwithstanding this, there is some excellent acting here, particularly from Mullan and Emily Watson as Albert’s parents, and a large number of lesser-known actors as British and German soldiers. And the animal work is spectacular – the horses really are magnificent, along with the visual trickery required to simulate their presence in battle.
I think you’ll get the most out of War Horse if you have any interest in the play, arriving in Toronto soon. Then again, maybe you should just save your money for those much more expensive tickets.
Tags: movie review