War Horse begins with a disneyesque feel of boy meets horse, boy falls in love with horse, horse and boy part unwillingly etc, etc. But that would put a little too soft a light on this film. Around 10 million horses died during 'The Great War', a million of those were from the UK. 'So What?' you might say, 'nearly a million men died too'. Yes of course. But they have their own films and expressions. This film is a not for them. It's for the horses that supported them through hell and back and, under the main story, it suggests a statement about our historical bond with these animals and the severing of it, partly due to the technological revolution that the war demanded from society.
Rather than just follow the life of a Joey (the horse) Spielberg crafts a journey that is pretty much from Joey's perspective. He experiences humans, learns tasks, makes 'horse friends' (kind of) and performs feats of valour. Now I'm not a horse person. I had never heard of War Horse as a play or book. But I was captivated. It's Spielberg, remember, so bring tissues. I hate to admit that he got me welling up over a horse but I've got to be honest; by the end there wasn't a dry eye in any of the seats around me.
Joey is supported by a cast of up and coming thespian nobility including Emily Watson (Oranges and Sunshine) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock - the TV series). Jeremy Irvine takes the human lead as the boy that rears Joey. Considering the weight of history behind some of the cast and crew, Irvine performs with bold energy and honest open emotion. Must be the experiences with the RSC.
Yes there are quibbles: Why do all the europeans speak english with relevant accents? Can the target audiences not read subtitles? Isn't the storyline structure a little dated and predictable? But these are minor considering the positives.
Beyond that the legend that is John Williams provides a score that amplifies every scene and oscar winning cinematographer Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List) paints rolling landscapes with beautiful golden sun and no-mans land with gritty contrast and corona casting backlights.
In the hands of a amateurs, War Horse could have been drab, slow and disconnected. But it was painted by masters and deserves a strong spotlight this winter. War Horse is not a disney fantasy nor just a children's book-made-into-film. Instead I would say it is a visual poem; a dedication to the courage and tenacity of previously unsung soldiers of WW1.