The film starts off a slowly as we get to know Joey, our protagonist horse, and his relationship with his owner, Albert. Albert is lower class and his family has always struggled to get by, but the situation gets worse after his father lets his pride get the best of him when he purchases Joey. The family’s luck is seemingly about to turn when The Great War comes along and throws their world upside down and Joey is sent to the battlefields. What follows is a series of vignettes that let us see the effects the war is having on Europe as Joey’s path takes us all over the war. We see both sides of the battle as we meet a variety of characters along the way and we hope Joey can find his way back home.
The film’s structure caught me completely off guard and it wasn’t until the French grandfather and granddaughter show up that I settled in to the journey we are sent out on. After the extended first act of the film we rarely stay with any location for more than a few scenes, but thankfully the vast cast of characters we meet are all engaging enough for us to connect with. Each story gets a compelling arc while integrating Joey’s presence without short changing him or our growing connection with the horse.
Spielberg is easily able to make Joey a compelling presence to carry us through the war while also allowing a lot of room to show the pains and struggle this war presented for everyone it touched. World War I was an interesting war in that it was a mixture of modern technology and the old guard of warfare and Spielberg and his team captures this dichotomy wonderfully. From the end of the Calvary, the influx of automatic weapons, the horrible nature of chemical and trench warfare, or the lack of implementing modern technology at the expense of countless lives are all represented impeccably and the era reconstructed to a T. The film also explores the morality of war and the harsh nature that comes with it; threatening death to their own soldiers, taking the locals’ food and supplies, sending off the young to die, it is all represented here. Spielberg puts a great end note on all of this with a lighter, yet sad, scene where two opposing soldiers show just how futile war can be.
Besides being a great portrait on the travesties of war, the film is also a gorgeous and triumphant achievement in filmmaking. The film is beautifully shot by Janus Kaminski, making the film feel timeless, yet innovative, with a number of brilliant shots. Spielberg and Kaminski achieve some fantastic visual storytelling, necessary when your main character is a horse, and they assembled possibly the best sequence of the year (funny the sequence that probably bests this is Tintin; also Spielberg). The scene in question is Joey jumping the trenches and running through no man’s land and it might be the most intense and terrifying scene of the year. The film is a technical treat and delivers on almost every level; which is to be expected from Spielberg and team.
The film’s cast is diverse and great from nearly top to bottom that’s why it is a shame that the lead human performance wasn’t on par with the fantastic ensemble. No not the horse, he is freaking amazing, Jeremy Irvine, who plays Albert, could have just been better. There were a number of moments, mostly in the first act, where I couldn’t buy into him at all and his accent seemed a bit off. Luckily, his performance gets better in his later scenes and the picture doesn’t ask him to carry the proceedings; it instead relies on the ensemble to move things along. Emily Watson and Peter Mullan help keep the early scenes interesting and they are as good as they are expected to be as Albert’s parents. David Thewlis also has a couple memorable moments in the early going and while it would have been nice to see more of these three veterans, there are plenty of great actors to replace them as Joey moves along. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston shine as a pair of British officers and we move on from them rather quickly, but not without them being affective. Others making quite the impression are Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens as a French Grandfather and Granddaughter trying to survive off their land and Toby Kebbell delivers my favorite turn as a British soldier in the third act.
In the end, War Horse is a fantastic piece of cinema and a great entry in the Spielberg filmography. Technically impeccable, finely acted, and one of the more emotional stories of the year, War Horse is not to be missed. An epic film for fans of almost every genre, audiences are sure to enjoy this film, just have those hankies ready.
War Horse is an A-