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War Horse - DVD Review

War Horse

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

MICHAEL Morpurgo’s War Horse has been variously described as an anthem for peace, a tribute to bravery, a tear-jerker extraordinaire and an invaluable history lesson. It remains a highly regarded children’s novel and a stunning stage play.

Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, achieved with the help of Richard Curtis, has a lot to live up to and, as a result, sometimes falls short.

But it remains a charming film, both sad and inspirational, that retains the novel’s core elements while bringing the filmmaker’s own penchant for sentimentality to the fore.

As with the book, the film follows the story of a horse named Joey as he is first sold to a farmer (Peter Mullan), befriended and cared for by his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and then re-sold to the British Army for use during the First World War.

His journey then takes him to the trenches of the Somme via encounters with British officers, German soldiers, French farmers and fellow horses before crossing paths once more with Albert in the final days of the conflict.

Spielberg’s film is designed, first and foremost, as a love story set against the backdrop of war that also serves as a potent reminder of the losses incurred by animals and men during that wasteful campaign (of the million UK horses that departed for France, only 65,000 returned).

As such, it deliberately eschews some of the more graphic elements of combat (which the director visited in Saving Private Ryan) in favour of the humanity at play.

And it’s during these war-time moments that his film works best when the likes of Tom Hiddleston’s kindly Captain Nicholls and Nicolas Bro’s sympathetic Germans are allowed to take prominence.

A famed scene in which Joey becomes trapped by barbed wire and stranded in No Man’s Land is particularly affecting – both harrowing and humbling – while providing Toby Kebbel and Hinnerk Sch√∂nemann with a terrific scene.

Yet such key, masterfully directed moments provide a stark contrast to some of the more schmaltzy scenes where Spielberg’s penchant for sentiment threatens to get the better of him and make the film feel more emotionally manipulative than it needs to be.

Early on, especially, the mood sometimes feels forced, especially during the farm-yard scenes that surround Joey’s formative years.

Fortunately, Spielberg’s cast make even those scenes appear better than they are by virtue of having such stalwarts as Mullan, Emily Watson and David Thewlis lend extra dramatic weight to the lighter scripted material.

Young newcomer Jeremy Irvine, meanwhile, brings an endearing, gutsy everyman appeal to Albert that makes him every bit as root-worthy as Joey despite being off-screen for a large part of the film.

It means that War Horse succeeds in spite of its flaws to capably live up to the various labels that critics and fans have already bestowed upon Morpurgo’s source material.

It is an emotionally compelling, epic film that is often as powerful as it is poignant.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 146mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: May 7, 2012