After watching a couple of small-scale movies at Gloucester's Guildhall ( Midnight In Paris, My Week With Marilyn ) it's time to head back to the multiplex for Spielberg's latest blockbuster, War Horse.
Based on the classic children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is a deceptively simple tale of a young boy and his horse. Teenager Albert Narracott ( Jeremy Irvine ) is growing up on a dirt-poor Devon farm on the eve of the First World War with his alcoholic father ( Peter Mullan ) and long-suffering mother ( a wonderfully weary but tough Emily Watson ). His father returns from market one day, having blown his money on a horse which, at first glance, seems totally unsuitable to the hard task of ploughing stony Dartmoor fields. Albert names the horse Joey and takes it upon himself to break in and train the reluctant animal. But even with all Albert's hard work and love for the horse, a combination of ruined harvests and an unscrupulous landlord
( David Thewlis having a great time ) means that Albert's dad ends up selling Joey to the army when war is announced.
The film then follows Joey's adventures as he passes from owner to owner and witnesses firsthand ( firsthoof? ) the horrors of war.
First, Joey becomes a cavalry mount for thoroughly decent chap Captain Nicholls ( Tom Hiddleston, vying with Michael Fassbinder for title of hardest working actor in showbiz ) but then, after a disastrous raid on a German camp, along with another horse - Topthorn - he falls into the hands of the German army. Two young deserters take Joey and try to escape from the front line. Inevitably, they are caught and executed and Joey is then taken in by an old Frenchman and his sickly granddaughter.
Eventually, Joey finds himself amongst the mud, barbed-wire and bloodshed of the Front, again at the mercy of the German war-machine. At this point in the story, now near the end of the war, Albert too is in the trenches, still dreaming of being reunited with his horse. If he can stay alive...
War Horse is a return to old school film-making of the family-friendly kind for Spielberg. You won't find the bleached-out, shaky-cam action scenes of Saving Private Ryan or War Of The Worlds here. Instead you get expansive, wide-screen compositions, with the camera lingering over landscapes like the clouds drifting over the Dartmoor hills. From England's green and pleasant land, to a thundering cavalry charge ( referencing Lawrence Of Arabia's attack on Aqaba ), to the swampy hell of No Man's Land, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski paint their backdrops with the skill of an Old Master.
And in those landscapes they show us people ( and horses ) struggling to stay alive, to get back home, to make sense of it all. Albert and Joey are two of a kind: innocent but headstrong and loyal. They are both buffeted by fate, both lose friends to the war, and their eventual reuniting is as moving as it is inevitable. Spielberg pulls the audience's strings in a way he hasn't since ET but you don't mind: this is a proper, old-fashioned epic which asks you to invest in the characters and leave your modern cynicism at the door. There are so many beautiful moments along the way: Mrs. Narracott's speech about her husband's traumatic experience in the Boer War, the touching friendship between Joey and Topthorn ( who said "Get a stable"? ), the hissing goose that chases after anyone setting foot on the Narracott farm, the luminous French landscapes only miles from the Front, the English and German soldiers uniting to save a trapped Joey, and the titular horse's exhilarating gallop through the trenches.
War Horse is a film that speaks of the horrors of war but also of the importance of friendship, loyalty and love. It's that simple and that powerful...
Soundtrack: Dark And Long, Mmmm Skyscraper I Love You, Surfboy by Underworld