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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

War Horse | Steven Spielberg | Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis | Review

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War Horse

There are very few filmmakers that can tug at your heart and bring you to tears as filmmaker, Stephen Spielberg, a master at manipulating audiences with his emotionally charged spectacles. So, be prepared to get your hankies out, because War Horse is sure to do just that. Spielberg is at his best, delivering a heart warming, sweeping saga about the remarkable relationship between a young English lad and his beloved horse that transcends boundaries.

Lee Hall and Richard Curtis's script, based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel that was later turned into a Tony award winning Broadway play, is set in England and across Europe during the first World War.

From the opening scene, it is evident there will be a strong connection between the horse and Albert Narracott, a British teenager (convincing, heartfelt performance by newcomer Jeremy Irvine) who stands by in the sidelines of the sprawling rural countryside and watches in awe as the newborn colt comes into the world. Albert is the son of down on their luck farmers Ted (Peter Mullan), a hard drinking war veteran with a gimpy leg, and Rose (Emily Watson) who are having a hard time paying rent to their wealthy and uncaring landlord, Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis). Threatened with foreclosure on his farm, Ted promises Lyons his money when the harvest comes.  But to do so he needs a capable horse to help plow the land. So, he goes to an auction where he bids more than he could afford and acquires the very horse his son was the first human to lay his eyes on.  Albert immediately bonds with the colt, names him Joey and promises his Dad that he will train the horse and teach him to plow.

Then World War 1 breaks out and due to financial desperation, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the military, thereby separating Albert and the horse he has come to love.

What follows are adventures of the intelligent, strong horse as he finds himself, far from his loving master, moving from the front lines of the British army, to being captured by the Germans,  escaping to a French farmhouse where he is taken in and cared for by a young girl, Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her elderly grandfather (Neils Arstrup), and back to the Germans, who force him into pulling heavy artillery through mud.

Eventually he is freed by a kind German soldier which sends him racing though the bloody battlefield and trenches, dodging bullets and explosions before getting caught in barbed wire. This being no ordinary horse, we get to watch a brave, four legged hero who manages to persevere, endure, and live through the horrors of war before eventually, against all odds, re-uniting with Albert.

The entire human cast is excellent.  But let me make this clear.  War Horse is the central character and the focus is on him.  There were several horses (7-14, depending on the source) used to portray War Horse, and the trainers did a phenomenal, seamless job of showing us what War Horse is feeling and thinking. It is though his eyes that we get to experience the many aspects of war, including the deadly toll it takes on the beautiful horses as well as the humans. And with Spielberg in control of the reins, the director, who is no stranger to making movies about war (i.e Saving Private Ryan) once again  delivers realistically staged, terrifying, battled sequences that pull no punches.

As a spectacularly crafted piece of cinema, special kudos must also go to Janusz Kamiński's impressive cinematography which gorgeously captures the lush English countryside, French fields and sweeping battle scenes, and to the well suited, rousing score by John Williams.

War Horse is an immensely satisfying, touching drama that has a lot to say about friendship, love, sacrifice, cruelty, suffering and the atrocities of war. Indeed, one of best films of the year, I expect it to be among the front runners and not a dark horse in the race for the Oscar.

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