Steven Spielberg plunges us into an overlit, twee vision of early twentieth-century Devon at the start of War Horse and we spend much of the rest of this harmless, conventional adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel seeking – even aching for – the real world amid the artifice. It’s in Devon that we meet young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), his farming parents (Emily Watson, Peter Mullan) and the horse, Joey, to whom he becomes attached and whose various owners lead us to the Western Front and back again. It’s only when three army officers, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and Patrick Kennedy with a verve missing in the earlier scenes, enter the movie and charge into battle that we encounter anything resembling the brio we expect from the director of Saving Private Ryan and ET.
Spielberg still manages to surprise and impress. There’s a smart image of the revolving blade of a windmill masking an execution in rural France. When it feels like his depiction of war is too soft, his camera sweeps up to reveal a scarred battlefield. There are other strong moments: the horse’s dash through battle offers much-needed flesh and blood, while there’s a moment of minimal spectacle and measured emotion as two opposing soldiers meet during a ceasefire to help free the beast.
The main problem with War Horse is not that it’s episodic – which it is: the horse’s odyssey leads him to various people and places, fatally relegating Irvine’s Albert to a distant memory – but that Spielberg doesn’t solve the conundrum of having an animal at the heart of his film. For Morpurgo, it was a first-horse narration. For the play, it was scene-stealing puppetry. All Spielberg can do is observe the creature, make the most of its few situations of peril and hope the surrounding drama is distracting enough. Fairytale, quasi-mythical visions of life, even war, are fine, but there’s an alienating push and pull here between the savagery of war and Spielberg’s fear of scaring the horses.