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Albert (Jeremy Irvine) vows to track down his friend, Joey the horse, after his equine pal is drafted into World War I. Steven Spielberg directs
If there's such a thing as a family war movie, this is it, and when War Horse delivers, it really, really delivers. The standout scene is undoubtedly a spectacular British cavalry charge, where Tom Hiddleston's dashing young officer has his worst fears realised - you can see the years fall away from him, as, like so many solidiers in The "Great" War, he realises the whole thing is a sick joke.
If the film has a problem, it's that we are not watching Saving Private Hiddleston, and throughout the film, just as you're hooked by one of the many human interest vignettes, we have to bid our two-legged chums farewell and follow the story of Joey the War Horse instead. Which is not to say Joey is a bad horse, or an uninteresting horse, as horses go. But he's still a horse, and when the human cast is this good, it's a wrench to leave them in favour of a horse. Horses can't act. They just can't. It doesn't matter how "miraculous" they are.
The script seems anxiously aware of this, insisting at every opportunity that Joey is a very special horse. Oscar Wilde once memorably opined, "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears... of laughter." A similar impulse rears its head in War Horse every time somebody insists that Joey is "a miraculous horse." You keep expecting them to have him turn water into wine, or do a card trick.
In lesser hands, this could have made for a disastrous fudge sundae, but the fact is that Spielberg is among our top directors for a reason - almost anyone else would struggle to create a film half this good from this narrative. It's a challenge that involves marshalling a crack team of performers, craftspeople and technical wizards - the film glows with the care taken over old-fashioned (in a good way) tangible detail and a commendable avoidance of lazy CGI fall-back solutions (where CGI is used, it's both justified and seamless). Certain key scenes - an execution, the aforementioned cavalry charge, a race through no-man's land - are as chilling as you'd hope, while remaining what the film is supposed to be: family-friendly. Full marks to the War, then, with some reservations about the Horse.
Successful in its aim to appeal to a broad family audience, this is undeniably impressive filmmaking. If it doesn't quite manage to tap the deep well of emotion that this type of film aims to access, it's because of problems inherent to the basic pitch, rather than the execution.
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