By Mike Smith
Sometimes you know what you need. And sometimes you know what you want. This is never more true in the case of Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) and his family. Peter is a good man who often finds his judgement clouded by a touch of the grape (or that strange combination of barley and hops). Ted and his son, Albert (Irvine) have come to town to buy a plow horse. To describe their farmland as rocky is an understatement and the horse they need must be strong and stout. Of course, against all reason, Ted bids on and purchases a beautiful thoroughbred. Fast as lightning and pretty to look at, Ted’s neighbors, as well as his disapproving wife (Watson) just shake their head. But, as they will all soon discover, this is surely no ordinary horse.
Told with the emotion-gripping style that is a trademark of many Steven Spielberg films, “War Horse” is based on the popular 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. The book is enjoying a great afterlife as it’s also the basis for a popular play currently running on Broadway. Adapted by British screenwriters Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”), the film captures the emotions of the book perfectly. Despite his mother’s doubt at the choice of horse, named Joey by Albert, the horse learns to pull a plow, digging rows and rows of rock-packed earth to prepare for planting. Albert also learns that before his father became the sad, broken man he appears to be, he had fought for England and received several medals. He finds his father’s campaign ribbon and ties it to Joey’s bridle. When World War I begins, Joey is “leased” by an officer, who promises to return him after the war. A war that seems will never end.
Has there been another director in the history of film who could manipulate the heartstrings as well as Steven Spielberg? Whether it’s Elliot and E.T., Oskar Schindler and the 1100 Jews or Captain Miller saving Private Ryan, Spielberg has managed to pull us into his films, as if we ourselves were the main character. He is assisted here by a stellar cast and a remarkable animal. As the bickering but loving Narracotts, Mullan and Watson seem like they’ve been together for years. After she’s been disappointed for the umpteenth time, Ted asks his wife if she hates him. “I may hate you more,” she tells him, “but I’ll never love you less.” Irvine, in his motion picture debut, is equally strong. His love for Joey has no boundaries and you can understand why he embarks on the mission he does to find him.
As he did on “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg takes us in and up close to the horrors of war. There is one great scene where the mounted troops charge a German outpost, the sound of the horses thundering hooves matching the beating hearts of their riders. The cinematography, by Spielberg’s long time Oscar winning DP Janusz Kaminski is breathtaking, as is John Williams spot on musical score. The one complaint I’ve heard about the film is that the battle scenes seem tame. They are intense but they’re nothing like the ones in “Saving Private Ryan,” toned down, in my estimation, so that the young readers of the book could see the film.