In theory Steven Spielberg and the ‘War Horse’ book should be a dream pairing.
It’s the charming kid’s story by Michael Morpurgo, which tells the story of World War I from a horse’s perspective, made by the man who redefined the modern war movie with ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Band of Brothers’.
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In practice however ‘War Horse’ is perhaps the year’s most misjudged movie; a cloying, over-earnest and sickeningly sweet dollop of faux-Englishness that’ll give you a hankering for horse meat.
The movie begins with wide-eyed lead character Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) ogling the titular horse, called Joey, prancing in a field. It’s the start of weak opening act set in an idyllic English countryside that probably never existed, and introduces our clichéd cast of characters.
Besides earnest Albert, we have his dad (Peter Mullan), an alcoholic farmer with a heart of gold, and his long suffering wife (Emily Watson) who puts up with the drinking because he injured his leg in the Crimean war.
The family has money troubles thanks to evil landlord Lyons (a mustached David Thewlis) - problems made worse when Dad buys Joey at a hugely inflated price because “there’s something special about that ‘orse!”
It’s like a moving Cotswold postcard thanks in part to the broad characters, but also Spielberg’s insistence on filming everything as artificially as possible.
The character’s all speak in the kind of broad West Country brogue that Americans like to think represents the British countryside.
The supposedly ramshackle Narrocott farm looks like a Constable painting, while every other shot of Joey, seemingly, is backlit by a fake sunset as he sways his mane in slow motion.
Thankfully, proceedings pick up when war breaks out. Dad flogs Joey to the British army and he becomes a steed for cavalry officer Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston).
The scenes with the over-confident cavalry class are the best in the film – with Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Major Stewart (TV’s Sherlock) interacting believably and poignantly.
They feature in a stunning battle sequence; which sees the English cavalry emerge from a wheat field and charge a supposedly undefended German camp, only to find themselves faced by a battery of machine guns.
After this the film becomes fragmented, as Joey begins his long odyssey through the war. He pulls wagons and then canons for the Germans, finds temporary shelter with the remnants of the French family, before eventually finding himself alone, tangled in wire in no-man’s land during an enormous battle. All the while Albert does his best to find his old pal.
Spielberg has always been a manipulative filmmaker – think Elliot silhouetted against the moon in ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’, or the closing line of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – but in previous efforts it’s been allied to genuine emotion, genuine drama.
That’s the problem with ‘War Horse’, it wears its fakeness on its sleeve. Besides the naff production design that (we suppose) is meant to imbue proceedings with a timeless, fairy tale quality, we also have John William’s score, which swirls on cue so you know exactly how you’re supposed to feel in every scene.
The genuine heart of the story, obviously captivating in the book and award-winning stage play, is lost between the layers of artifice.
Perhaps it’s harder to translate the horse/boy bond on film. Almost every character who meets Joey remarks on what a splendid and remarkable animal he is, but we were left wondering why we should root for a nag's survival, while thousands of humans met muddy deaths in the background.
It marks another low-point for Spielberg in a career that, unfortunately, seems to be in slow decline. Earlier this autumn the director delivered the technically impressive but utterly forgettable ‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn’. Before that we had ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ – nuked fridge and all.
The director’s last memorable film was possibly ‘Catch Me if You Can’… but his last truly great one? ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Which was made 14 years ago.
'War Horse' is released on 13 January 2012.