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War Horse
Genre Adventure
 
Review:

Stephen Spielberg loves a good war drama and it shows, having directed Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Empire of the Sun and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. All of these epic dramas were set in and around World War II, which is just one reason the Best Picture nominated War Horse is so different...

War Horse is set in World War I, based on a 1982 children's novel and the 2007 stage play adaptation. The story begins in a pastoral setting in Dartmoor in 1914 as a local farmer buys a beautiful thoroughbred instead of a plough horse. When his harvest fails, the horse is sold to the British calvary and shipped to France against his teenage son's wishes.

War Horse's title character parallels Spielberg's Jaws and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Although it's unusual for Spielberg in the way that the title creature is also the lead character. The narrative is similar to the Life of a Bullet opening sequence in Lord of War, except the story is drawn out to 142 minutes and taken from each supporting character's perspective.

This could explain the lack of name stars, opting for newcomer Jeremy Irvine as Albert, the horse's trainer with a number of respected peripherary character actors in Emily Watson, David Thewlis and Benedict Cumberbatch. After all, who wants to be upstaged by a half-ton steed?

The supporting actors realise they're there to carry the emotional weight of the story and deliver dutiful performances as a result. This epic war drama isn't about them as much as it is about the adventures of a spirited horse. Although opting to shoot the film entirely in English, instead of going for mother tongue authenticity, diminishes from the integrity of the performances.

An overly sentimental and unintentionally funny "glass and a half" fairy tale feel interupts the flow of the story at key interchanges. The story of Albert and his horse, could have been the setting for a real-life Jack and the Beanstalk and there are some chocolate box moments involving a strawberry farmer, his daughter and a windmill that could pass as scenes from Heidi. This atmosphere just seems out of place in what's toted as a war adventure of epic proportions.

There are just as many emotionally taut moments. Spielberg is a master storyteller and manages to create the perfect conditions for some memorable and moving scenes, particularly the trench warfare, which has been treated as an echo to the brilliance of the beach landing scene in Saving Private Ryan.

War Horse is Spielberg's first film to be edited digitally. Up until 2012, the director has relied on longtime editor Michael Kahn, defaulting on traditional film editing techniques using a Moviola. This update doesn't affect the old-fashioned feel of the saga and only adds to the beautiful and slick cinematography as if oil paint on a canvas.

Finders Key was the main horse used in filming War Horse. While also the star of Seabiscuit, this thoroughbred couldn't have done it on his own with another 13 horses playing the character of Joey at various intervals. Working with animals is difficult, even on a good day, and going into this film with an appreciation for the handling involved, makes the experience all the more satisfying.

War Horse is an entertaining and epic journey and it's difficult not to engage with the story despite having a horse as a lead character and the momentary lapses into chocolate box sentimentality. The cast of unsung heroes do their bit, aided by the sweeping cinematography and first-rate production values. Not Spielberg's best by a long shot, but you can't deny the quality of entertainment.

The bottom line: Moving.

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