VOD film review: War Horse
Ivan Radford | On 12, Dec 2013
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan, Niels Arestrup, Peter Mullan
Watch War Horse online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Let’s face it. You don’t go into War Horse without knowing exactly what to expect. It’s a film by Steven Spielberg. About a horse. You’ll either leave the cinema bawling your eyes out or throwing up into the nearest potted plant. Spielberg being Spielberg, he manages a messy mix of both. Either way, bodily fluids will run. The only question is in what order.
Albert (an excellent Jeremy Irvine) has been brought up well by his parents. He’s a lovely boy, even if his dad (Mullan) is a wounded alcoholic and his mum a waste of talented actress Emily Watson. Between his pa’s gimpy leg and their farm’s poor harvest, how can the family survive financial hardship and avoid being repossessed by the nasty local landlord?
Inevitably, the answer is: a horse.
But not just any horse. As Albert discovers as he trains Joey to respond to his whistle, this… is a magic horse. It can’t pull rabbits out of its nose, but it can plough an impossibly rocky field. And run really fast. And look sad while doing it.
You can’t help but blub a little as Joey walks around, all cute and horse-like. Albert spends most of the film’s moving first act wailing about his precious Joey after it gets sold by his dad for the war effort. Everyone else who comes into contact with the horse is equally touched. There’s Tom Hiddleston’s army officer, who’s really good at drawing. There’s crazy old granddad Niels Arestrup (him off A Prophet), who lives in a windmill. There’s the scared German soldier (David Kross – him off The Reader), who wants to save his brother. There’s even a nasty man who doesn’t like horses played by (who else?) Eddie Marsan. And then there’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who has a moustache.
“Be brave!” shouts Cumberbatch’s sergeant, his moustache flapping in the wind. He disappears soon after.
That’s the problem with the whole film. These characters have names, but their presence is so fleeting you won’t remember who they are. Despite the great performances (particularly by Hiddleston and Cumberbatch), they might as well be called Chapter 1 or Chapter 2. Or Chapter with a Moustache.
The only human you will remember is Celine Buckens’ precocious girl, Marie – and that’s because she has a terrible French accent (let’s not go into the fact that everyone speaks English, regardless of nationality).
Spielberg deserves bonus points for making a film in which the horse is the protagonist, but his finished piece is little more than a bitty montage of Joey feeding the poor, curing disease and inspiring world peace. At one point he takes on a tank, in a scene that’s surely symbolic of technology vs horse. Yes, there are moments of sincere emotion – the windmill shot will be admired by many – but there’s little in the way of sustained tension or peril.
The one time you feel Spielberg really goes for it is a stunning 10 minute tracking sequence in the middle, when we sprint with Joey across No Man’s Land at full dutch-tilt. The rest trots along, happy to shoe-horn in the odd bit of comic relief (geese! LOL!) or heavy-handed awards baiting (“Treat this horse like the hero it is,” one officer suddenly orders, with a completely straight face).
Credit goes to wrangler Bobby Lovgren, whose four-legged cast members are genuinely engaging, but even that’s not quite enough to make this epic live up to its grand name.
For half of its runtime, War Horse really has got legs. For the rest of it, the going is good to soft. Mostly soft.