Review: War Horse


Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by:Lee Hall, Richard Curtis
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch
Released: December 26, 2011
Grade: B+

One of the highlights of my recent trip to New York City was seeing the play War Horse at the Lincoln Centre Theatre.  It was high on my list of “things to do” given that (1) it had picked up 5 Tony Awards including best play, and (2) director Steven Spielberg was adapting the original novel into a feature film.  As you can imagine, I was not disappointed.  It was a brilliant show that left my eyes a little moist.  I even had the good fortune of meeting star Seth Numerich in the foyer afterwards (looky here).

Given the success of the play, the Oscar hype surrounding Spielberg’s film has been intense.  Many bloggers and critics have been declaring it as the best picture frontrunner since early in the year.  Whilst the general public has been largely oblivious to this wild awards season speculation (probably a good thing), it has created a strong expectation amongst film buffs that War Horse would be amazing.

This highlights a dilemma that faces any critic – managing one’s expectations.  I try to see every film with an open mind but this is difficult in today’s “information age”.  Before even stepping into the theatre, we have access to online trailers, other reviews and social media chatter.  They help us form a simple view along the lines of “this film should be good” or “this film will be awful”.

I’ve often wondered if it were possible to have a critic who lived in a cave, completely shut off from the rest of the world.  Without any other opinions to guide them, would their annual top 10 list look similar to other critics or would it be radically different?  Would they have picked The Social Network as the best film of 2010 (as seemed to be the case for every major critic organisation)?

The point I’m trying to make is that if your early expectations are not met, it can leave you conflicted.  Let me try to illustrate this using an example.  The Lincoln Lawyer (released back in March) was a good film that left me surprisingly satisfied.  I approached it negatively (it stared Matthew McConaughey after all) but was surprised how much I enjoyed it.  War Horse is an equally good film but I felt disappointed on leaving the theatre.  Given the hype and my love for the play, I hoped for something better.

I’m not offering any solution this problem but my advice with War Horse is not to set your own expectations too high (as should the case for any film).  Let me therefore attempt to give you a “good” but not “great” idea of what you can expect…

The story begins just prior to World War I with a teenager named Albert (Irvine) forming a close attachment to a horse bought at auction by his drunken father (Mullan).  The pair are separated however when the horse is sold to a young soldier (Hiddleston) and taken to France to be used in battle against the advancing Germans.  It inspires Albert to enlist in the army and go in search of the animal that has become his closest companion.

The film’s biggest weakness however is the way in which the story has been told.  It seemed appropriate for the play but I’m not sure its fragmented nature works as successfully as a film.  It’s like watching a group of short stories (linked by the horse) and we don’t have the time to develop a deep connection with any of the characters.

I was also puzzled by the way in which in the battle scenes are depicted.  Spielberg has made a clear decision to shy away from blood and violence with the intent of making this more “family friendly”.  I can understand that rationale but I think he’s gone too far.  It’s obvious to the point of being distracting.  A scene involving two young Germans and a windmill (without giving too much away) summed up my frustrations.

That said, Steven Spielberg has found most of the necessary ingredients for his cinematic adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel.  The limitations within the screenplay are largely offset by Janusz Kaminski’s beautiful cinematography, Michael Kahn’s nicely-paced editing and John Williams’s sweet film score.  Between them, those three gentlemen have a total of 10 Academy Awards.  They know what they’re doing and the film looks great on the big screen.

Mr Spielberg has been a busy man in the sense that he has two films coming out on the same day in Australia.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen before.  The animated The Adventures Of Tintin joins War Horse as part of the plethora of Boxing Day releases in this country.  My personal preference is for Tintin but if you have the time to see both, you shouldn’t be disappointed… unless you set your expectations too high!