War Horse is a film that dares you to hate it. 'Shamelessly sentimental and romantic' is an understatement. The main protagonist bears uncanny resemblance to Simple Jack from Tropic Thunder. It asks us to buy that trench warfarers would agree to a momentary truce in order for both sides to tend to a wounded horse. Many people have amusingly - and somewhat accurately - interpreted it as a film about a horse who brings bad luck everywhere it goes. Yet despite its many flaws and easily satirised elements, there's still a strangely compelling film somewhere beneath the often predictable exterior.
It begins with a birth. Joey the Horse is born, and country lad Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is instantly smitten (in an entirely non-sexual way). Joey's a thoroughbred, but is bought as a work horse by Albert's alcoholic, war veteran father Ted (Peter Mullan) in order to one-up his cartoonishly villainous landlord. Joey and Albert frolic the fields happily, while Ted worries about his increasingly overdue rent. But wartime disrupts the idyllic country life, and Joey is bought by British army captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and is brought overseas to fight in the First World War. And thus begins an epic wartime journey as Joey passes from owner-to-owner. Will boy and horse eventually be reunited?
The unusual structure of War Horse is both a strength and a failing. As Joey travels around wartime France, we spend time with each of his successive owners. There's a young, sickly girl and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). There's Private Gunthar (David Kross, aka the guy from The Reader) and his underage brother. And various other people directly and indirectly affected by our almost invincible equine hero. While this leads to some interesting moments and an unusually balanced portrayal of wartime opponents (and their innocent victims), the characterisation of pretty much all characters - bar some like Albert's mother played by Emily Watson - is simplistic. Talented actors show up in little more than glorified cameo roles, with little of note to do or say. The multiple perspectives also create an unavoidably fractured and disjointed narrative. Characters appear briefly and disappear with little warning. Benedict Cumberbatch shows up as a British Major, for example, only to be wheeled off less than half an hour later with no hints as to his ultimate fate. Even Albert is entirely absent for large segments of the story. It's a curious structural choice overall, albeit one that doesn't always work.
Much has been made of War Horse's sentimentality. A painfully overwrought John Williams score certainly tries it's hardest to force the audience to emote. But despite cheap tearjerking moments, there is heart at the centre of War Horse. Spielberg doesn't actually push the cheesiness as far as he could've, so there's certainly poignancy to be found here (even, dare I suggest, some subtle moments). It's a clearly romanticised piece - although it does take time to reflect on the brutality of war, including a very memorable and powerful moment involving machine guns. This isn't the most affecting portrayal of wartime - heck, it may not even be Spielberg's - but there is tragedy constantly threatening everyone Joey encounters.
There is, though, one area where War Horse is an undeniable success. Visually, the film shows the world's best known director on top form. Along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the director makes every frame count. The film is traditional to a fault, but the beautifully realised visual compositions frequently stun. It's endlessly refreshing to see a blockbuster of this scale not over-reliant on CG spectacle - landscapes and balanced framing are the order of the day here. A Malick-esque march through wavy grass is a midpoint highlight, but it's the dusk-drenched finale that will stay with you.
War Horse is a film that's extremely easy to mock. But the last images, and a handful of others throughout, are so well considered you're almost willing to forgive Spielberg for over-indulging elsewhere. It's a mediocre film in many aspects, but also one that irregularly bursts into vivid, colourful life.