War Horse film review: A Steven Spielberg masterpiece

Spectacular, tear-jerking, uplifting: War Horse is a Spielberg masterpiece

War Horse (12A)

Verdict: A moving masterpiece

Like the Duchess of Cambridge at the premiere, I wept. You probably will, too.

Anyone in doubt whether this most theatrical of plays could make the transition to the more realistic medium of cinema can rest easy.

Steven Spielberg, with the help of screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Love Actually), has fashioned Michael Morpurgo’s novel into a thoroughly moving picture.

Cavalry charge: The British Army on the move in Spielberg's masterpiece War Horse

Cavalry charge: The British Army on the move in Spielberg's masterpiece War Horse

You could dismiss it as a ‘boy and his horse’ saga, but that would be to underestimate its power, passion and complexity.

This is the greatest of all equine entertainments, even surpassing such classics as National Velvet, The Black Stallion and Seabiscuit.

Spielberg wastes no opportunity to pummel our tearducts. He doesn’t do understatement, but the upside is he’s not afraid to be emotive, and reach out to audiences of all ages.

His tale is unashamedly manipulative – corny, at times – but storytelling drive, fine acting and gorgeous cinematography carry us through.

The story is of a thoroughbred horse called Joey, bought on a whim by a poor tenant farmer (Peter Mullan), much to the annoyance of his level-headed wife (Emily Watson).

Sincere: The most memorable performance is by young Jeremy Irvine, who carries off the lead role with touching sincerity

Sincere: The most memorable performance is by young Jeremy Irvine, who carries off the lead role with touching sincerity

In the first of many memorable sequences, their teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) trains him to pull a plough – a talent which one day will save Joey’s life.

When World War I starts, the family is forced to sell Joey to a keen young Army captain (Tom Hiddleston), who takes him into battle. From there, Joey crosses enemy lines and embarks on a hazardous journey through the war, ending at the Somme.

As Spielberg proved with Saving Private Ryan, he is a master at depicting warfare.

There are many superb battle scenes, including a suicidal cavalry charge and the Battle of the Somme itself. But Spielberg never loses control of the horse’s story, or the human ones.

Director's cut: Jeremy Irvine is directed by Steven Spielberg on the set for the two-and-a-half-hour spectacular

Director's cut: Jeremy Irvine is directed by Steven Spielberg on the set for the two-and-a-half-hour spectacular

Running through the film is a sense of the waste of war, its horror as well as its heroism.

There are fine performances by Niels Arestrup as a French farmer and Toby Kebbell as a brave Geordie corporal.

In smaller roles, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Marsan also make an impression. But the most memorable performance is by young Irvine, who carries off his role with touching sincerity.

John Williams’s sweeping score
combines beautifully with Janusz Kaminski’s masterly cinematography to
give it the epic feel of a latterday Gone With The Wind.

It
runs to nearly two-and-a-half hours, but it’s never boring. As always,
Spielberg lets his knowledge of screen history infuse his work.

Moving: There are many superb battle scenes, and the cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, left is superb

Moving: There are many superb battle scenes, and a fine cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, left, is superb

The early English countryside section is evocative of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, which was set in Ireland. The battle scenes echo another Ford film, The Horse Soldiers. The influence of the great English director, David Lean, is everywhere.

War Horse has already been condemned as safe, conventional film-making, yet it’s anything but.

Its leading character is not human but a non-speaking horse, and the structure does not fall into the conventional three acts – instead, it is episodic and cyclical, which in many ways is more like real life.

This is a cinematic masterpiece that deserves to stand alongside Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and ET as Spielberg’s finest work. /01/12/article-2085885-0F66A9F100000578-369_233x369.jpg” width=”233″ height=”369″ alt=”The nearest thing to an ethical character is the senior manager played by Kevin Spacey.” class=”blkBorder” />

The nearest thing to an ethical character is the senior manager played by Kevin Spacey.

This is the first of, I fear, many fictional movies about the 2008 financial crisis.

Its picture of a New York investment bank imploding was presumably intended by first-time writer-director J.C.  Chandor to be as beady-eyed about Wall Street as David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross was about real estate hustling.

However, Margin Call fails to clarify the issues as effectively as Inside Job, last year’s Oscar-winning documentary, and Mr Chandor is unwittingly seduced by the wealth and power he is portraying.

Like Oliver Stone in Wall Street Two, he’s fallen head over heels in love with his own bad guys: obscenely overpaid, financially irresponsible people – some might even be called crooks – who are rewarded for failure with sums of money most people will never earn in a lifetime.

The film gives juicy roles to Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci, plus a showy supporting turn for Jeremy Irons as the financially illiterate but frighteningly ruthless head of the besieged bank.

The nearest thing to an ethical character is the senior manager played by Spacey.

This actor is adept at playing characters who are as slimy as they are intelligent. But here he’s in a movie that requires him to be the nice guy, and it’s not a good fit.

His hugely well-paid Wall Street executive faces a moral dilemma.
Do you acknowledge your own errors of judgment and resign, or do you unload your toxic investments on other people and let them go bust instead of you

History tells us the answer, of course. But the film’s attempts to humanise Spacey’s character – it even gives him a dying dog – are laughable.

In fact, it undermines him from the start. What are we to make of a man who cries over canines but thinks nothing of sacking 80 per cent of his staff

What the film lacks – much like its characters – is humour or irony, either of which might have given it a more attractive sense of proportion.

Despite favourable reviews from virtually every U.S. critic, this movie bombed at the box office.

The reason is that there’s not a single person for the audience to care about. And Mr Chandor’s stolid, telly-style direction means it is about as thrilling as a January tax demand.

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