I have always maintained that the work of Steven Spielberg as a director of genre pieces and blockbusters is superior to his serious work; his Jurassic Park’s stand head and shoulders above his Schindler’s List’s. A statement which sets up his latest film War Horse (a third hand story after the novel was written by Michael Morpurgo in 1982 and adapted for the stage in the 2007 by Nick Stafford) up for a fall. From its beginnings of the Narracott family, an unfortunate family of farmers who spend beyond their means on a horse who isn’t of the build to do what is needed for the Narracott’s. Through bloody-minded optimism, the young Albert trains up the antsy thoroughbred, Joey, into a miraculous horse who criss-crosses his way across Europe during the First World War from one side to the other.
The framing device is Albert Narracott played by first time actor Jeremy Irvine, who puts in a solid performance as the creepy Albert. Creepy may seem an odd choice of words, yet it’s never anything less than fitting given the way Albert becomes obsessed with his horse, treating it like a small child, isolating himself from his friends. The problems with that character are clear to see, but it’s served as well as it could be from Irvine.
The lead character by lack of other is Joey, played by 14 different horses. The very idea of an animal without the aid of technology or manipulation makes the film problematic. Imposing humanity on an animal from the early days with Albert to the many people Joey meets at war is troubling on an emotional level. It is hard to believe that human qualities can be present in a horse and to say they are would be folly. The only change the horse undergoes from it being introduced as an energetic, tenacious animal is that it calms down around people. As far as any personality goes, it is all imposed by the human characters and is thereby the source of all these teary eyed screenings.
Following on from his last film (TinTin), Spielberg has once again gathered a brilliant cast of British actors including but by no means exclusive to Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston (who impresses the most in his small role), Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Eddie Marsan, David Thewlis, Toby Kebell and Niels Arestrup. The ensemble cast that surrounds Joey is traded upon in an episodic structure, which is one of the major problems.
For a film which seeks to manipulate you to tears, it was hard to feel. How are your emotions supposed to be manipulated with any degree of success when the story trades the current cast for a new one on multiple occasions? Without the aid of transparent and broad manipulation techniques, it just isn’t possible, and unfortunately those broad and predictable techniques are implemented. Just to confirm, the act of emotional manipulating is not something to scoff at or be averse to, the cinematic art is there to evoke an emotional response, to manipulate feelings. Yet when it is done with a deficiency of subtlety it is nothing more than disingenuous.
Occasionally it’s hard-hitting and emotional in all the right ways with the standout scenes being the no man’s land and the windmill scenes, but more often than not the construction and writing was maudlin and ineffective to the extreme to anyone above the age of 12. Which is contrary to the war scenes which hard hitting for its rating, while it may not capture than madness and senseless waste of young life that the First World War became known for, no 12 rated film will ever do that. All the same, it’s in these scenes where Spielberg shows how skilful he is. Without the aid of blood and entrails he captures the futility of war with bodies flying in every direction and dropping dead and unlike other war films there’s an investment in both sides making these scenes remarkably intense and emotional without openly pulling at your heart-strings. In these fleeting moments the episodic structure pays off.
It would be erroneous to say that there isn’t an audience for War Horse who will enjoy the hell out its melodramatic coming of age story. At the same time, not everyone will enjoy it. Spielberg’s latest proud creation is at least half an hour too long and uses much travelled and clichéd lines to manipulate your feelings. Yet under all these problem areas beats the heart of a film directed as sumptuously as any other Spielberg work.