War Horse

IT IS A WELL-KNOWN fact that honesty is often the best policy, so I would like to start this review by being honest:  I was sceptical about War Horse, even right up to the start of the film.  I know that the art of reviewing something requires going into it with somewhat of an open mind, but having read a number of Morpurgo’s novels, and despite not (yet) reading the original story of “War Horse”, I was familiar with the plot – or so I thought.  I sat down in the cinema expecting a traditional, Morpurgoian tale of hardship and triumph (for the well-known author and previous Children’s Laureate is famous for his grittier children’s stories) that had been taken up by Hollywood and polished into a family film with a big heart and an even bigger score.  What I wasn’t expecting, and was pleasantly surprised by, was the depth of the film; something that not even the Americans could remove from the original story.  Although War Horse is directed by Steven Spielberg, it retains a sense of being a very British film – the scenes set in Devon have a familiar, local feel, whilst the war scenes are not overly dramatic as can often happen when Hollywood gets hold of them.

War Horse tells the story of Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a boy from Devon who successfully raises a horse named Joey despite everyone’s doubts, and an unbreakable bond between animal and boy is formed.  But when World War I hits Britain, lives change dramatically and the bonds of love, friendship and loyalty are tested to the extreme.  This very basic plot summary supports my initial uncertainties about the film, and the first scenes unfortunately didn’t do much to banish them, with the rosy glow of the camera, and the triumphant music as Albert and Joey defy the expectations of the people of his village dangerously alluding to the classic family blockbuster.  However, once the film really gets going it is obvious that these scenes are necessary and as such they jar extremely effectively with the brutality of war. In the war scenes little is held back, something I found surprising as I was expecting a fairly sanitised family film.  They are gritty and real, with the Battle of the Somme portrayed in all its horrific glory.  For me, these scenes made the film; they are both gripping and shocking, making you feel extreme sympathy for the soldiers as well as anger, and, in many ways, guilt over what they had to experience.

These feelings are made possible by the relationships that are set up and explored in the film.  The characters are very real, and all have the power to move you to tears and joy.  The strength of the film lies in its portrayal of the different people affected by the war and how they are all linked together through Joey.  Star performances by Irvine, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, amongst many others, made the scenes depicting the camaraderie of war and the effect it had on ordinary people as well as soldiers, both heart-warming and heart-wrenching.  And the performance of the horses must not be forgotten – even if you aren’t an animal lover, it is difficult not to appreciate their sheer magnificence and the skill needed by their trainers to achieve such things.  The inclusion of a storyline for Joey allowed the exploration of the effect of war on the animals involved and in many ways their forgotten and often overlooked heroism.

All in all, I hope this review will encourage prospective viewers to not be put off by the apparently clichéd premise for this film.  War Horse is not simply a family film about a boy who makes friends with a horse, nor is it a portrayal of the horrors of war – in fact, it is a gripping, gritty and emotive film that defies expectations and lingers in the mind for a long time after it has been watched.