In a lavishly mounted motion picture based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, "War Horse" is episodic and sometimes repetitive to match its unusual narrative structure. Set up in the first act as the innate love story of a boy and his horse, said boy, named Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and horse, Joey (played at various ages by eleven animals), don't get the chance to build a palpable enough bond for their relationship to retain its impact when the teenager disappears from view for well over an hour in the extended second act. Since no human actors, in fact, are on screen for very long, the film lives or dies based on the equine of the title. While a key rewrite by Lee Hall (2000's "Billy Elliot") and Richard Curtis (2007's "Mr. Bean's Holiday
") to tell the story solely from the horse's point-of-view might have done wonders, the film still sticks with Joey enough for this to be about his journey and no one else's. On those grounds, there are extraordinary moments peppered throughout, all that needs to be said about the gentle creature's arduous life and times read deeply within his wise, weary, piercing dark eyes.
The horse was bought at auction by the Narracott familyhard-drinking father Ted (Peter Mullan), long-suffering mother Rose (Emily Watson), and their curious teen son Albertand named Joey soon after. As Albert trains his new pet to plow and such, hard times are exacerbated by the start of World War I. With no choice but for Ted to give him up, Joey is leased to the French cavalry, riding in battle for Captain Nicholls (Tim Hiddleston) until the soldier is shot down. Led by fate, the horse is taken for a short time by two German brothers in hiding, Gunther (David Kross) and Michael (Leonard Carow), then discovered by a precocious young French girl, Emilie (Celine Buckens), who insists she and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) keep him. As the sounds of war draw nearer to their rural home, the worst is still yet to come for Joey if he hopes to survive long enough to see Albert again.
In his second good but not great release of the season (it is seeing U.S. release just four days after "The Adventures of Tintin"), director Steven Spielberg has made a sweeping ode to classic historical fiction in cinemaits final scene is nothing if not a loving nod to "Gone with the Wind" and "The Searchers"while not quite achieving or earning that same "classic" label. The people on screen in "War Horse" are treated as revolving doors to get Joey from point A to B and so on, and while they occasionally leave an impression as the sorts of acquaintances that frequently walk in and out of one's life, it isn't really possible to get too connected to any of them. Newcomer Jeremy Irvine and a first-billed-but-barely-there Emily Watson (2008's "Synecdoche, New York
") are underutilized as Albert Narracott and supportive mother Rose; it's unfortunate that they finally get to work with someone of Steve Spielberg's stature, then receive shallow roles that more serve a purpose to the plot than live and breathe as real people. Better, actually, are a radiant Celine Buckens and Niels Arestrup as a spunky, if fragile, young French girl and her grandfather, who take in Joey for a time and must hide him when soldiers come knocking.
What "War Horse" is about more than anything, though, is given away by the title, and if ever there was an Oscar awarded for best animal performance, all eleven of the horses used for the part would collectively be shoo-ins. Expressive and heartrending, Joey begins the film as a naïve anyhorse, then gets drug through a difficult, painful, cruel life it doesn't want but has no choice but to accept. Animals are generally innocent by their nature, but does Joey retain his by the conclusion? The levels of experience, memory and emotion spotted on his face by the end are staggering, making the point that when the chips are down and life or death is on the line, there are precious few differences between man and animal.
Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski (2010's "How Do You Know
") brings a sharp painterly eye to his cinematography in "War House," the exquisiteness of his heightened, dramatically-lit images coming close to turning the film into a glowing museum piece. If it looks too perfect and, thus, lacks a dose of much-needed spontaneity, Joey, at least, never goes wrong. A late scene where he finally has enough and tries to break free from the war zone he's found himself within is brilliantly shot and conceived, nothing short of awesome until the cringe-worthy moment where he runs too deeply into a mess of barbed wires. "War Horse" can be uneven, two-dimensional, and even a little soft in its treatment of World War I, but its refusal to compromise Joey's travails is where it gets its power. Director Steven Spielberg does not marginalize him for what he is, but touts him as a hero for who he is.