WAR HORSE Review: A Classically Old-School, Sprawling Epic

Spielberg's latest is an overly sweet spectacle but a wildly exhilarating one; near-flawless on a technical level if too eager to make your heart soar.

rating: 3.5

British filmmaker Alex Cox once said of Steven Spielberg, " isn't a filmmaker, he's a confectioner", referring to his heavily sentimental approach to the majority of his best-known - and best-loved - works. The legendary director's detractors seem to view his emotive method as ineffectual, even disingenuous, and in just a few instances - chiefly Hook and A.I. - they might be right. However, the grand emotional power of the director's most heralded works such as E.T., Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, is difficult to fight against, unapologetically grandiose and unerringly confident. Spielberg's latest, his much-anticipated adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel War Horse (which was then adapted into a more famous play in 2007), is straddled somewhere between his best and his worst; a perfectly respectable weepie which nevertheless tries a little too hard to earn your tears throughout. War Horse's human protagonist is young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), but the real star of the show is his horse, Joey, who during the onset of the Great War, is sold to a cavalryman, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), and sent to France to serve in the army, very much against Albert's will. While Joey ends up serving on both sides of the war and changes hands a few times in between, Albert enlists in the army at great risk, with the vague hope of seeing his beloved horse once again. In a year that gives us an unprecedented double dose of Steven Spielberg, it is all too apt that his first film, The Adventures of Tintin, would celebrate technological advancement, while his second is a classically old-fashioned romp - and one might say, a throwback - keen to celebrate the blissfully sweet-natured films of the kind that aren't often made anymore, in place of darker narratives and "grittiness". This call to the past certainly causes the twee first half to go down a little awkwardly, particularly to audiences young enough not to appreciate its lineage. Nevertheless, the palate-cleansing visuals of the Devon skyline are gorgeous to behold, and the acting - especially from Peter Mullan and Emily Watson as Albert's parents - is great without exception. However, one can't shake the feeling that Spielberg has leant on the safety net of comfort, guiding us through the opening portions on autopilot before unleashing what is in every way a superior second half. Once the lengthy prologue is over and Joey is shipped away from his owner, the film becomes a pacier, more compelling outing altogether; we get to feast our eyes - wonderfully captured by Spielberg, of course - on vast horse-led sieges on enemy camps, and the grim reality of the lost innocence of war, particularly when two young enemy soldiers take mercy on Joey only to face the tragic consequences themselves. It's all artfully, skilfully restrained by Spielberg, depicted with a bloodless family-friendliness that only accentuates the feeling that it emerged out of a time capsule, and that's intended in the most complimentary manner possible. Still, the picture's highlight is the more visceral, intense second half, in which Joey finds himself on the front lines, bounding effortlessly over trenches and running for his life. Spielberg directs these scenes with an exhilarating passion, aided by some outstanding, Oscar-worthy cinematography from frequent collaborator Janusz KamiĀ„ski that's likely to make your heart flutter where the deliberate emotional beats might not. Perhaps deserving of most praise, though, are the horse trainers and indeed the horses themselves; watch in amazement as Joey trips down a trench and promptly regains his footing, a brutal scene that was nevertheless executed without ample CGI (the film purportedly contains only 3 shots of CG horses, all employed for the sake of their safety). Wince as Joey struggles when he becomes trapped in barbed wire, and his struggle - of an innocent animal caught amid all this war - causes both sides to temporarily cease-fire to free him in what is the film's funniest and most uplifting testament to humanity. Unsurprising it is that Spielberg's project has attracted what might be the year's best ensemble cast outside of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; fine actors like Watson, Mullan and Hiddleston are joined by David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch (brilliant as a curmudgeonly British soldier), Toby Kebell, Eddie Marsan, and Liam Cunningham. All are memorable and effective, though nobody is ever on screen for long enough, and while this most certainly diminishes any awards potential, it does accentuate that Forest Gump-esque feeling of quite how many lives the film's beautiful horse ultimately touches throughout the story. It's a film that will provoke gentle satisfaction more than floods of tears from most anyone except ardent horse enthusiasts, but Spielberg set out to make a classically robust, sweeping epic, and that he has done, albeit with a few overeager missteps which give it an all-too packaged, manufactured feel. On the basis of its expectation as a legitimate contender for Best Picture, it is a disappointment, but War Horse works as a crowd-pleaser for audiences young and old. Spielberg's latest is an overly sweet spectacle but a wildly exhilarating one; near-flawless on a technical level if too eager to make your heart soar. War Horse is released in U.S. cinemas on Christmas Day (Dec 25th) but not until January 13th in the UK.

Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.