Dismiss it as slick, tear-jerking schmaltz if you must, but “War Horse” is a rousing achievement, a bold, strikingly cinematic spectacle inspired by the Tony Award-winning theatrical adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book. In the play, Joey, a rambunctious steed bought to serve the British army during World War I, is a puppet, manipulated by actors to convey his grace and fiery soul.
In Steven Spielberg’s movie — his most captivating since 2002’s “Minority Report” — Joey is no longer a wooden shell of a horse, held together by wiring; he is real, dominating the screen as only a creature of such magnificence could.
Morpurgo let Joey tell his own story, recounting the horrors of war from the perspective of an animal incapable of understanding the reasons for human conflict, but too accustomed to its ravaging effects.
Having no such luxury, Spielberg chronicles Joey’s remarkable odyssey through the humans whose lives he touches: among them, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a farm boy initially too young to enlist; Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), the soldier who keeps his promise to treat Albert’s horse as his own; and Emilie (Celine Buckens), who discovers Joey in her barn in France and falls in love, only to see him stolen by German marauders.
The play has been described by some as “critic proof,” though Spielberg’s version — as much a commentary on the savagery of combat as a love story about a boy and his best friend — has already been derided as a calculated cash-in built for Oscar glory.
Personally, I doubt the director needs that kind of validation at this point, and even if he does, “War Horse,” a throwback to classic Hollywood epics, feels as genuine as it is ambitious.
It is a story about hope, and connections lost only to be rediscovered in the aftermath of unthinkable tragedy. Albert doesn’t just lose a horse when Joey is drafted to serve the war effort. Estranged from his hard-drinking father (Peter Mullan), a veteran still unwilling to talk about the devastation he witnessed, Albert loses his closest confidant, his refuge from domestic turmoil.
His journey to find Joey, which takes him to the front lines and back, allows him to understand the unspeakable — father and son are at last united by a bond forged in fire and blood.
Yet for a movie that finds uplift in those tender moments, “War Horse” is most poignant at its darkest, as young lives are senselessly sacrificed to a war machine neither we nor Joey can comprehend.
War Horse ★★★★
Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis
Written by Lee Hall, Richard Curtis
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Running time 2 hours 26 minutes