The Naracott farm in pre-World War I Devonshire, is struggling to pay Lewis (David Thewlis) the landlord, especially after Ted (Peter Mullan) buys a beautiful young horse at auction at a price he can hardly afford. His wife Rose (Emily Watson) is none too happy about it, since the horse looks lovely but what they need is a strong ploughhorse. Their teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) promises to break him in and make him useful so he can keep him. Naming the horse Joey, Albert soon bonds with the horse, but then the war breaks out and horses, including Joey, are needed for the British Army's officers. Albert is devastated and vows to reclaim him.
Review by Louise Keller:
Take some tissues and be prepared for a huge emotional wallop in Steven Spielberg's wonderful film about an extraordinary horse. Described as a miraculous horse, with 'speed, stamina and everything', the spirited chestnut stallion with the white blaze has traits we can instantly admire: individuality, loyalty, courage and plenty of heart. Spielberg's powerful drama has plenty of it, too - heart, that is, its journey taking us into the lives of the many people who are touched by the horse - none more so than the boy who raises him and with whom it shares an indestructible bond. His journey is as potent as that of the horse.
There are big days and small days; this is a big day, Albert (Irvine), the young lad from Devon tells his horse Joey, as he harnesses him to a rough plough, knowing it's a big ask for a horse not bred to plough the fields. His father (Mullan) bought the horse at a price he could not afford and it was really a strong work-horse the family needed.
We have already seen Albie bond with Joey - from the day the colt was born as Albie peeked through the fence. Now, the family's financial survival depends on him. In a beautifully structured screenplay, the crucial relationship between boy and horse is firmly established at the outset: this is the film's emotional barometer and defines the stakes.
Like Albie's, our hearts break as Joey is sold to Captain Nichols (Hiddleston) when WW1 breaks out and a new chapter begins, hooves pounding on the battlefield. The baton of care is passed from one owner to another - each with their own story.
One of the most memorable stories is that of a farmer (Arestrup, superb), who explains to his delicate granddaughter (Buckens) there are different ways to be brave, citing the critical journey of a carrier-pigeon flying above the horrors of war.
The topic of bravery is a running theme throughout the film and the futility of war highlighted when two soldiers from opposing sides share a momentary truce as they join forces to free the War Horse from devastating barbed-wire in which it has been entangled. (The credits reassure us that no harm came to the horses in the film.)
The climactic scene when boy and horse are reunited is the one we are all waiting for and we are not disappointed; the result is an emotional tour de force.
In his first feature film role, Irvine is perfect as the boy devoted to his horse; Watson is solid as his mother and Mullan excellent as his alcohol-dependant father, who hides proof of his own bravery (his regimental pennant from the Boar War), which plays an important part in the exposition.
All the production elements are good: John Williams' emotive music guides us emotionally while Janusz Kaminski's cinematography captures the extremes of ugliness and beauty. The journey of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's book to the screen is a long one, having first been adapted into a successful stage play by Nick Stafford in 2007.
First published in the Sun-Herald
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
War Horse is a soppy, schmaltzy film about the great love between a teenage boy and a young horse, but it's quality schmaltz, thanks to Steven Spielberg's technical talent for the screen. Even composer John Williams gets all sentimental with a rather obvious score, but no one could be too critical of such a big hearted story, told with such enthusiasm.
For a start, the horse is marvellous to look at, and should get some sort of equine Oscar for his performance, too. Just look at those big eyes, full of ... something. This is the major factor in the film; if we don't fall for the horse and stay in love with him, the film would be meaningless.
The story is part adventure part hero's journey: two heroes, in fact, because Albert (James Irvine) is as much a hero as Joey the horse; and I put it that way round because it is really Joey who faces impossible odds, terrible ordeals and death defying situations. Several times. It is his survival we barrack for, and his courage and spirit which lifts us out of our seats and right inside the cinematic fable.
Young Albert sees Joey being born in a Devon field, and then admires him from afar, until his father, Ted Naracott (Peter Mullen), buys the colt at auction - one of the film's best scenes, to be reprised in rather different circumstances towards the end of the film. In between the two auctions, the world changes for Albert, his family and the world at large.
Spielberg seems so determined to push everything at us he makes everything in a major key, so much so that some scenes are stilted, and some images are pure cliché from the archives (eg the end shots). There are some savage battle scenes, where Spielberg's experience on Saving Private Ryan comes to the fore. Harrowing though they are, it is essential to the story, to demonstrate the extraordinary elements that make the story and the horse so special.
Not all of the escapades work equally well; the French farmhouse where Joey takes refuge with his brother horse from the British army, is undisciplined and rather clunky, albeit Niels Arestrup is great as the grandfather, who has a dramatically crucial role to play at the end of the film.
The tone of the film, despite the gruelling battle scenes, is often allowed to drift into a bucolic charm, which robs it of the gutsy characteristics that are evident in most of the characters, the story - and of course, the horse.
But we forgive it all, because Spielberg is working hard to move us, to transfer the emotions that drive the story across the screen to us in our seats. There are a handful of scenes in the second half of the film (including a battlefield scene with Joey) that will use up any dry patches left on your hankie.
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WAR HORSE (M)
CAST: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan, David Kross, Toby Kebbell, Neils Arestrup, Patrick Kennedy
PRODUCER: Kathleen Kennedy
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
SCRIPT: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Janusz Kaminski
EDITOR: Michael Kahn
MUSIC: John Williams
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Rick Carter
RUNNING TIME: 146 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Walt Disney
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2011