For an established director who has delivered some of the biggest hits in Hollywood history, you have to admire Steven Spielberg's versatility: The very same year he releases The Adventures of Tintin -- an epic animated adventure that pushes the boundaries of current technology -- he also turns out War Horse -- a visually sumptuous homage to legendary filmmaker John Ford and an affecting World War I drama that examines the human condition though the experiences of a valiant horse that touches countless lives.
Adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo (which was also made into a Tony-winning play), War Horse details the unbreakable bond that forms between a horse named Joey and his young owner and trainer Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the headstrong son of a hard-luck farmer (Peter Mullan). Along the way, Joey touches the lives of everyone he comes into contact with, including British and German soldiers, as well as a kindly French farmer and his ailing granddaughter. Later, in no-man's-land, Joey's extraordinary saga comes to a poignant and deeply touching climax.
Subtlety has never been Steven Spielberg's strong suit, but despite shameless, repeated attempts to get a rein on our heartstrings, there's a genuine sense of beauty to War Horse -- both aesthetically and thematically -- that makes it a difficult film to be overly cynical about. In adapting Morpurgo's novel to the screen, writers Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones's Diary, Black Adder) take great pains to offer a thorough setup before the film hits its stride with a series of masterful vignettes that manage to be at once emotionally intimate yet sweeping in scale. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, such ambitious material could have easily come off as clumsy, pretentious, or cloying. But Spielberg's acute understanding of the language of film affords him the unique luxury of portraying archetypal characters so that they come across as genuinely human, and he never makes the mistake of portraying Joey's experiences in an anthropomorphic manner. We tend to project onto animals -- both in movies and in real life -- but by avoiding overtly cutesy cutaway shots of Joey during the setup or heartrending close-ups when things begin to look dire later on, Spielberg allows the horse's experiences to accumulate in a manner that doesn't feel manipulative. But the director's efforts to maintain a sense of emotional honesty are continually undercut by Hall and Curtis, who display a distracting tendency to offset any tragedy with urgent levity. As a result, scenes that should resonate, such as a sudden execution, are often rendered slightly less powerful than they may have been otherwise without the unnecessary diversion.
Although his wide-eyed mugging teeters on the brink of parody early on, young newcomer Irvine gradually finds his footing as the plot opens up and his character starts to mature, while earnest performances by Mullan and Emily Watson as his parents (not to mention a moustache-twirling turn by David Thewlis as their evil landlord) help to keep the extended setup sequence from growing stagnant. Meanwhile, out on the battlefield, David Kross carries considerable dramatic weight as a young German soldier determined to keep his younger sibling from harm, and Niels Arestrup is unforgettable as a kindly grandfather attempting to shelter his beloved granddaughter from the horrors of war. Sadly, talented Brits Toby Kebbell and Eddie Marsan (in a rare role in which he isn't positively despicable) are essentially lost in the shuffle.
But while the human actors in War Horse are genuinely impressive, it's the equine that truly carries the weight of the story, and Spielberg does a phenomenal job at making Joey a believable character that convincingly grows and evolves during his incredible adventure. His unbreakable spirit is the main reason we remain saddled to our seats throughout the film, and it serves as a reminder of how our lives are always interconnected, even in the darkest of times.