War Horse
dir Steven Spielberg
scr Lee Hall, Richard Curtis
prd Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg
with Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Niels Arestrup, David Kross, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan, Celine Buckens, Nicolas Bro
release US 25.Dec.11, UK 13.Jan.12
11/UK DreamWorks 2h26
War Horse
Boy's best friend: Irvine with Joey

watson mullan thewlis
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War Horse Spielberg takes the hit stage play (based on the Michael Morpugo novel) to the big screen with guns blazing, not only recapturing the heart-stopping urgency of war, but also cranking up the emotion exponentially.

In early 1900s Devon, teenager Albert (Irvine) lives on a farm with his impulsive-drunk father Ted (Mullan) and his tough-minded mum Rose (Watson). When Ted overpays for the wrong horse to work the fields, Albert adopts the horse, names him Joey and teaches him the ropes. But when war breaks out in Europe, Ted sells Joey to a cavalry captain (Hiddleston). At war, Joey changes hands between British and German officers, a young soldier (Kross) and a French farmer (Arestrup). Meanwhile, Albert joins the army, heading into the trenches to search for Joey.

While the play is a wonder of imaginative theatre, Spielberg is limited by cinematic realism. Not that it's terribly realistic, with chocolate-box England and picture-perfect France (also shot in England). The gruelling Somme wasteland is recreated almost as a fantasy sequence, while the epilogue is shot under an orange sky that echoes Gone With the Wind. But Joey's journey is still the emotional core, as he meets a variety of people and even befriends another horse, Topthorn.

This certainly isn't Spielberg's subtlest film. His direction overstates every emotion with the help of John Williams' soaring score. As the cast members are swept up into Spielberg's earnest style, only Watson keeps her feet grounded in wry honesty. The battlefield sequences cleverly obscure the real horror, but they're assembled with invention and skill to make us feel the horrific situation. And the extensive effects work is remarkably seamless.

In the end, there isn't much more to this than a boy and his horse, separated by what was at the time (and might still be) the most unthinkable event in human history. Every element works to draw out our emotional response to the twists and turns of the plot and the wide range of characters. And it's a moment later on, when two soldiers from opposite sides of the war work together to help a horse in distress, that lowers our guard for a series of emotional gut-punches that follow. It may be contrived and sappy, but Spielberg knows how to make it work.

cert 12 themes, violence, some language 30.Nov.11

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