Let's start this review off with some blunt truths. I don't like horses and I'm not too fond of war either. So it's fair to say sitting down to watch a film called War Horse - based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and a highly successful stage play of the same name - isn't exactly my idea of a riveting night out at the local picture house. But then again, read the fine print which says, 'A Steven Spielberg Film' and perhaps it's at least worth a go.
The film tells the tale of an enduring friendship between a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey he raises from its birth to the day his father (Peter Mullan) sells him to the British Army on the eve of the First World War. Separated and understandably expected to be the last Joey will ever see young Albert again, the film takes a massive shift into the war in Europe where Joey drifts through the ravage war torn lands of France and is picked up by an array of owners played by some of the best actors working today. It's pure cheese, but it's the type of cheese which appeals to the masses so much I'd say you'll have a heart made of stone if
you don't shed at least one tear by the time the film's closing credits roll.
The biggest dilemma in the praise of War Horse however is where to start with the cast, which - with the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch - features probably the best British acting talent not to appear in last year's phenomenal Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Jeremy Irvine was heartfelt and sincere in the leading role, Peter Mullan was terrific was his flawed, alcoholic, father, David Thewlis was typically dastardly as their smug landlord and Emily Watson is just simply lovely as Irvine's mother.
Then once delving into the war torn sections of the film the audience is then treated to the quality of Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsen, Toby Kebbell (huge fan) and Liam Cunningham amongst many others. Then just to top it off Spielberg throws in one of my favourite French actors in the form of the truly brilliant Niels Arestrup as the French farmer who takes the horse in for his granddaughter played by the virtually unknown Celine Buckens.
On top of the terrific performances, Spielberg has given the audience a film which the whole family can enjoy. Even with its hefty two and a half hour running time, it never once feels like a chore, even after its slightly slow start and this critic purposely resisting the thought of enjoying it. The aesthetics almost retain a nostalgic quality to them, obviously in its period setting but also in its traditional British production values.
Maybe it was the sincerely moving John Williams' score but it took me back to those films of the early 90s I watched with my parents and grandmother in the Curzon Cinema in Belfast. Films like War of the Buttons, The Secret Garden and (unsurprisingly I suppose) Black Beauty. Films which you may not necessarily 'get' as a child, but as you grow will look back on fondly because of the heart-warming stigma attached to them. War Horse does this in abundance. And though it isn't quite pushing the boundaries like last weekend's Shame, like The King's Speech before it if this triumphs at the Oscars next month I won't begrudge it one single bit.
It's cheesy, it's almost ready made for the Oscars but even with my lack of love for horses and war I enjoyed nearly every single minute of it. Steven Spielberg gives the world another wholesome, hopeful, traditional piece of cinema which only he can do best. This is proper family cinema you can marvel at on a giant screen, then curl up on the sofa and happily enjoy with your gran on a lazy Sunday afternoon with fondness and glee. Wonderful. Truly. Good horse...
War Horse is in cinemas everywhere January 13th, 2012.