Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, which in turn became a Tony award winning play, Steven Spielberg's War Horse is just as suited for the screen as it was for those other mediums. Where Morpurgo relied on his skilled words and the play relied on talented puppeteers, the movie brings us an actual horse. I noticed this when I was watching the pilot for David Milch and Michael Mann's horse-track show on HBO called Luck that I felt the same way here- horses are such beautiful animals. They were practically designed to be photographed, the way they can look at peace one moment and then be running with such powerful force.
The name of this horse is Joey. Set in the English countryside shortly before World War I, Joey is sold to the Narracott family. Rose and Ted (Emily Watson and Peter Mullan) have to be sure they are ready for the harvest so they don't lose their farm therefore leaving their son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), to train Joey to be a plough horse. Albert and Joey soon form a bond almost similar to how some might treat a domesticated animal like a dog. Come wartime, Ted still needs money so he sells Joey to the English army much to Albert's dismay. What follows are a series of vignettes.
We see Joey move from a British captain (Tom Hiddleston) who is readying his troops for the war ahead, to a German private (David Kross) who plans to run away from the army with his brother, and to an elderly French man (Niels Arestrup) who is living with his sick granddaughter on a farm of his own. Through all of this, Joey still remains the spine of this story while still having an arc of his own. We see the lives that Joey is affecting and yet we also wish to continue to follow Joey's own story across Europe. As you can see, an amazing ensemble has been prepared that also includes David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham, and David Dencik just to name a notable few.
The two performances that I found the most involving were those of Irvine and Arestrup. Irvine is a revelation in his film debut. He has such an innocence to him that is especially apparent when Albert signs up for the war effort with the dim hope that he might one day encounter Joey again. As for Arestrup, I've been a huge fan of his work with Jacques Audiard in The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet. There is a scene where he delivers a monologue while talking to his granddaughter about what happened to her parents and he talks about the war from the perspective of a bird. Arestrup delivers it with such grace and understanding that it brings his granddaughter (and several people that were in my theater's audience) to tears.
The film's beauty extends beyond just its story and characters. This film is shot like a classic Hollywood picture by Spielberg's regular cinematographer since Schindler's List, Janusz Kaminski. Then there is the score by the masterful John Williams. Lately I find that a lot of my favorite movies have commendable scores that are more atmospheric in nature (such as Reznor and Ross' work on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but Williams is not afraid to have an entire orchestra be playing at any time. Williams has always understood how not to take an audience out of the moment while still telling the story in the music itself. The final moments and shots of the film are a perfect example of all the visual and auditory moments working in sync. We see Joey as part of the shot's composition against an orange skyline as Williams' score ends the film.
This is all of course shepherded by the guiding hand of one of the greatest living American directors. There is a scene where a German and a British soldier both come out from their trenches to help free Joey. This moment has to be somewhat taken for granted as two sworn enemies are working together and making a few jokes and comments about themselves, each other, and the situation... and yet this moment just works. Spielberg is commenting on the beauty of the animal that draws these soldiers out of hiding in the horrific situation of war.
That sums up the essence of War Horse. It manages to be an uplifting crowd pleaser in the best kind of way as it never talks down to its audience while still not being afraid to make its points and themes readily apparent. Everything in the movie is clearly defined and the screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall serves to set up that narrative canvas that Spielberg can operate with. This really is a perfect film for Spielberg to direct. It combines the sense of wonder found in his "lighter" work (Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) with the harsh realities of his "darker" work (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan). Even though the 2010s have only just started, Spielberg has managed to be sure to deliver at least one masterpiece in each decade. Hopefully he has many more left in him.