Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
War Horse is desperately pretty, sentimental and heartfelt to the point of exhaustion. In other words the return of late 1980s, very early 90’s schmaltzy Spielberg. Whether this is something to celebrate or lament we shall leave up to you.
Steven Spielberg shoots through the eyes of a talented illustrator. Filthy trenches, plumes of poison gas, a disastrous Calvary charge; all as beautiful as they are horrific. Add in the continuous swell of John Williams’ score and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski‘s yolky sunsets (no cgi) and War Horse is every frame a Spielberg movie. Not subtle, the final act or ‘episode’ becomes laughably earnest as one more unbelievable turning point is piled on top of another, but moving nonetheless.
The romantic Spielberg approach could lead audiences to deduce that what they are witnessing is exaggerated, or worse still completely false. Certainly this is not true of Joanna Johnston’s costume design. Military uniforms are reproduced with subtle contrasts adding to character differentiation. The minor difference in shade and fabric of Captain Nicholls’ (Tom Hiddleston) and Maj. Jamie Stewart‘s (Benedict Cumberbatch) field dress distinguishing both men on the battlefield and portraying their non-standard officers’ uniform accurately within a historical context.
Johnston has taken little dramatic licence with costume, her picturesque recreation of a French farmhouse existence a justifiable exception as it is clearly intended as an oasis of calm bathed in warm colour and soft textures. She even ensures helmets worn by German soldiers evolve as the war drags on, removing the decorative spike sported by the foot artillery and replacing it with the more functional ‘coal scuttle’ variant that eventually become synonymous with WW2. If realism is not the first thought that pops into your head watching War Horse, it certainly should not be your last.
Realism in the Spielberg sense does not translate as brutal. This is a family film, so carnage is replaced with aftermath. These war horses suffered far worse than he is able to portray for his intended audience. Many died on the battlefield, not thousands but an approximate figure of eight million. Something which should have been clearer in the story, and lays more at the door of screenwriter Richard Curtis, is that owner of the titular War Horse, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), pursues his steed to France. It is evident Albert enlisted but not why. He seems to be there to fight in the war and just happens upon his beloved horse by dumb luck.
Featuring more strong performances than might be expected given the episodic nature of the script, Hiddleston and ‘Geordie soldier’ Toby Kebbell in particular make a lasting impression, War Horse is a real movie in the traditional Hollywood sense. Children and the elderly will surely love it.
War Horse was released in the UK on 13th January.
© 2012, Christopher Laverty.