Steven Spielberg has taken Michael Morpurgo’s original novel and subsequent stage hit and crafted a thoroughly old fashioned family film.
We meet Albert (Irvine), Rose (Watson) and Ted (Mullan) struggling Devonshire tenant farmers just before the First World war. Living in bucolic splendour all is well with the world apart from a lack of income to pay the impatient and thoroughly unpleasant local landlord, Lyons (Thewlis).
Ted is a good man but is too friendly with the bottle, leading him to buy a horse at auction, totally unsuited to his needs but allowing him to outbid Lyons, a small but ultimately expensive victory.
Albert takes to “Joey”, training and loving him in equal measure.
Misfortune will take Joey away as the world is engulfed in the European conflict, Albert promising to find him again at some future time.
The story then follows, not Albert but Joey as he is cast adrift in the maelstrom of wartime Europe. Passing through various “owners” good and bad, we see the horrors of the First World war, effectively from the perspective of the horse and his adventures.
As a story device, this is somewhat flawed as whilst we can clearly care about our four legged hero, his conversation skills are limited and therefore we can only rely on his interaction with other diverse characters. Certainly it takes a while for the story to progress beyond the early set up.
Spielberg has rendered a soft glow on many sequences which even though shot on location have the feeling of a movie set. Music by John Williams is whimsical in many places and geese feature heavily in earlier sequences, adding humour where dread might be more appropriate.
Thrills and battle sequences are PG-13 friendly, despite that limitation notable sequences show the directors experience and flourishes. The battle sequence and gallop through the trenches are standouts, this after all is the director that brought us “Saving Private Ryan”.
Peter Mullan and Emily Watson do well with their roles, bearing in mind we see an England that only exists in American Film makers minds. Irvine is rather bland, although to be fair the story is really not about him. Coincidences and improbability pile on top of each other in an uncomfortable way and there is a feeling that film just does not hang together quite as well as it should. More a sequence of chapters or vignettes, rather than a satisfying whole.
There are occasions when sentimentality just gets in the way. WW1 opposing trenches clicking and whistling to each other is an awkward sequence, as is the exchange in No-Man’s land.
However, there are shots that remind us what Spielberg is capable of. Cavalry hiding in a field of crops, waiting for the order to charge, is beautifully rendered. Also providing Benedict Cumberbatch a chance to show off his “posh voice”.
CGI is eschewed wherever possible, this is old school film-making, easily earning the tag of “they don’t make them like this anymore”. Whilst the director is arguably not on top form, mid level Spielberg is still better than most.
A very old fashioned English story, filtered through American eyes with variable results. Technically accomplished as you would expect but not as enjoyable as you might have hoped.
Recommended as family fare, though animal lovers should be wary, despite the “no animals were harmed during the making of this film” confirmation.