Leave it to the great Steven Spielberg to be able to inject a great deal of heart into a story about a boy and his horse. He’s a master at being able to make the audience care about the most unusual of main characters, even when they’re not human, such as an alien in E.T. or a robotic boy in Artificial Intelligence. Now he applies that same mastery to a horse to bring us War Horse, a beautifully made epic that takes place before and during World War I.
Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), his wife Rose (Emily Watson), and their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) live on a farm in England where they struggle just to be able to pay the rent. One day, Ted goes off to an auction in order to purchase a horse for plowing one of their fields, except that, instead of a plowing horse, he decides to wage a bidding war against his landlord for a young horse that has no experience. His wife is quite mad with him for spending their rent money on the horse, but she decides to give him a chance, with Albert, who’s admired the horse from its birth, training it.
Things eventually start going well, but due to a flood, Ted is forced to sell the horse, now named Joey, to the military for use in the recently-declared war with Germany. From here, we watch as Joey switches hands among several owners on both sides of the war from the English soldier who buys him from Ted to a young girl and her grandfather to a pair of German deserters and more. Meanwhile, having formed a special bond with Joey, Albert joins the war effort when he’s old enough in hopes of being reunited with his friend.
The first act of War Horse is a marvelous experience. We get to witness the special bond forming between Albert and Joey throughout their training sessions. Joey slowly comes to see Albert as his friend and master as he begins to obey commands such as being called by a special whistling noise that Albert makes with his hands. Within a few minutes, you’ll find yourself rooting for Albert to get Joey to plow the field in order to get the money they need to keep the farm.
This is the special gift that Spielberg has. He builds this touching relationship between Albert and Joey so quickly that you immediately begin to care about the characters, and when they’re separated at the outbreak of World War I, you want them to find their way back to each other as soon as possible.
This is what makes act two such an odd addition to the film. While we do care about what happens to Joey, this act of the film becomes a little slower and less interesting than the film had been, though it is still engaging. The problem here is that the characters that Joey is passed to are not fleshed out very well, nor are they themselves particularly interesting. On top of this, Albert is left out of the picture for what felt like a good 45 minutes.
It’s only when we jump forward four years for the final act that we find out that Albert has joined the Army and is still looking for Joey. This is also where things begin to pick up again as we now get to follow what both of the main characters are doing. It is also here where we are treated to some amazing battle sequences, but, of course, we should expect no less from the man who directed the greatest battle sequence in cinematic history, featured in Saving Private Ryan.
That brings us to another point, the look of the film is absolutely gorgeous. From the opening shots of the Narracott’s home to Germany to the battlefield and back again, the cinematography from two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) is jaw-dropping. The final scene is particularly interesting, having a tone that looks like it’s right out of Gone with the Wind. You can bet there’ll be another Oscar nomination in it for him for his incredible work here.
It’s very surprising to learn that this is Jeremy Irvine’s first role in a feature film, having only worked on one TV show before. He does a great job at playing Albert. It can’t be easy playing a role where your main co-star is a horse, but he brings all the necessary emotion to the part and helps bring that bond to life.
War Horse is quite an enjoyable experience, though I wish it had been able to maintain the greatness of the first act. However, thanks to Spielberg’s excellent direction in developing the relationship between the leads, as well as beautiful cinematography and production design, this touching film is definitely worth a look. 3/4 stars.
Now playing in theaters everywhere.
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