War Horse Reviewed: Heartless Bastards Need Not Apply

In places it looks magical, but unless you're a 'something the eye' type you'll be ticking off the cliches as your companions weep in the aisles...
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In a peaceful farming village nestled in the bulbous, rolling farmland of a 1914 Devon, squiffilly gruff farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullen) attends market, on the lookout for a plough horse to help him through the tough season ahead. A good, solid farm animal - a hulking, docile shire - requires strength. Reliability. Durability.

Narracott knows this, yet he’s nevertheless captivated by a skinny young foal, bucking and whinnying in protest at its first separation from its mother. It’s clearly ill-suited to the gruelling lifestyle of farming, yet Mullen is drawn to it, and, following an expensive bidding war with his landlord David Thewlis, he makes his extravagant purchase, in no doubt as to the risk he’s undertaken.

This gamble doesn't go down too well with either his wife (Emily Watson) or Thewlis’ Mr. Lyons, who both (quite legitimately) wonder how Narracott intends to square the financial implications of his foolishness. Watson believes the horse should be sold and replaced immediately, while Narracott’s son Albert (relative newcomer Jeremy Irvine), seeing the same promise his father saw, vows to break the horse in, pledging that – despite its shortcomings - it will fulfil its duties. He names the horse Joey, and so begins the bond between himself and the young horse that forms the emotional crux of the film.

These early scenes are pleasantly and toothlessly whimsical, unapologetically revelling in the archetypical rural Britain - full of ‘oo-arr’-ing bumpkins and impossibly perceptive animals – of films like Babe and (a lazy, but valid, comparison) Black Beauty. There’s triumph over adversity, a humourous goose, the power of faith and determination – it’s all here; each cliché ticked off perfectly and pleasantly.

Yet despite Albert and Joey's valiant efforts, the announcement of war with Germany coupled with (thanks to some rotten luck) the continued financial ruin of the Nellacotts sees Joey reluctantly sold to the British Army, under the kind employ of Tom Hiddlestone’s Captain Nicholls. Nicholls recognizes not only this particular horse’s merits, but also the tangible, valuable bond that exists between it and Albert, and makes a promise to Albert that Joey will be returned once the war is over.

The rest of the film charts Joey’s epic passage through the entire four-year breadth of the war, along with those whose lives he touches consecutively along the way. These include a young pair of German brothers trying to escape the conflict, a French girl and her genteel, pacifistic grandfather, a kindly German wrangler whose conscience is troubled by the suffering endured by the artillery horses under his control, and the brave soldiers in both the British and German trenches.

Disregard the five star reviews that War Horse will surely receive – you’re right, and everyone else is wrong.

Spielberg is the most versatile director working today - one that has, in the past, tackled war at its most indescribably brutal. It seems important to state early on therefore that this is the work of the softer, wide-eyed Spielberg; more ET than Schindler’s List in intent. War Horse is a family adventure, presenting its goreless war, with implied, rather than unflinching, tragedy.

ET’s sadness or the violence of Jurassic Park didn’t condescend kids – they credited them with emotional maturity, challenging without traumatising, both films taking their nastier elements to the limits of what children could endure without ever stepping too far. It’s a line Spielberg has walked before, and few know where this line is more precisely than he does.

So, when a cavalry charge against a line of German guns does occur it will come as no surprise that we aren’t shown horses and soldiers being cut apart in explosive agony - we’re merely informed that it happened; or, when an execution occurs, it does so behind a deftly-placed scenic screen.

This restraint, thankfully, doesn’t completely preclude Spielberg from indulging in a couple of fantastically constructed action scenes: one ‘over the top’ charge is profoundly and breathlessly unsettling even in the absence of Saving Private Ryan’s jarring vérité, and a prolonged tracking shot of Joey bolting through No Man’s Land is truly exhilarating.

Yet these sporadic forays of flair and excitement only make up a small portion of the film. What’s left in their absence is, depending of your personal affinity for stifling sentimentality, either a heart-warming and epic tear-jerker, or a fairly relentless assault of carefully constructed, emotionally-evocative vignettes – ones that will break against harder hearts like waves against a grumpy, probably frequently bored, shoreline.

The film makes assumptions of the viewer, all of which skew heavily towards a target audience of youngsters and already biased and soon-to-be blubbering hippophiles. If you’re not going to buy the fact that characters all see something ‘special’ in what is, to the eyes of a layman, a horse as normal and delicious-looking as any other, or if you fail to invest in groups of characters whose fates are as predictable as night following day, then this may not be the film for you.

It has its share of nice, tender moments, yet these are smothered beneath an increasingly tiresome precession of grindingly overwrought emotional payoffs. The film milks its tears through persistence, picking away until it draws its blood, and in stacking one cynically evocative moment on top of another it tugs your heartstrings so often that you’re left feeling ever-so-slightly violated.

It’s tonally assonant to the best of the hand-animated Disney films, and therefore will find its place in the hearts of those who love their Bambis or Lion Kings, yet those of a more cynical disposition will be irked by its triteness, or annoyed that – at a not inconsiderable 146 minutes – it’s too long, especially considering the unstable bladders of the kiddywinks and middle-aged tena-ladies to whom it will most appeal.

Yet this is certainly a tragic enough introduction to The Great War for youngsters (one scene involving a crippled horse and a soldier’s gun will see parents across the globe carrying bawling nippers out of cinemas), and, as Spielberg knows his target audience, a curmudgeonly dissection of its overly-saccharine stickiness seems fairly redundant.

As many will doubtlessly be dragged to the cinema to see it by people who will all love it, it should be known that it’s all doom and gloom: as you’d expect, it looks superb (magical, in places), is earnestly and sweetly acted by a stellar cast, and no-one directs an action scene like Spielberg. If you’re the ‘something in my eye’ type, you may even be slightly moved.

If not, then prepare yourself for a daunting gauntlet of weepy denouements rivalling that of the final Lord of the Rings, not to mention the irritation that arises from being called a heartless bastard by everyone who loved a film that you thought was actually fairly boring.

To these poor, soon-to-be-unimpressed souls, it’s important to remember: disregard the five star reviews that War Horse will surely receive – you’re right, and everyone else is wrong.

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