Anyone in doubt whether this most theatrical of plays could make the transition to the more realistic medium of cinema can rest easy. Steven Spielberg, with the help of screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Love Actually), has fashioned Michael Morpurgo's novel into a thoroughly moving picture.
You could dismiss it as a 'boy and his horse' saga, but that would be to underestimate its power, passion and complexity. This is the greatest of all equine entertainments, even surpassing such classics as National Velvet, The Black Stallion and Seabiscuit. Spielberg wastes no opportunity to pummel our tear ducts. He doesn't do understatement, but the upside is he's not afraid to be emotive, and reach out to audiences of all ages. His tale is unashamedly manipulative - corny, at times - but storytelling drive, fine acting and gorgeous cinematography carry us through. The story is of a thoroughbred horse called Joey, bought on a whim by a poor tenant farmer (Peter Mullan), much to the annoyance of his level-headed wife (Emily Watson).
The most memorable performance is by young Jeremy Irvine, who carries off the lead role with touching sincerity. In the first of many memorable sequences, their teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) trains him (Joey) to pull a plough - a talent which one day will save Joey's life. When World War I starts, the family is forced to sell Joey to a keen young Army captain (Tom Hiddleston), who takes him into battle. From there, Joey crosses enemy lines and embarks on a hazardous journey through the war, ending at the Somme. As Spielberg proved with Saving Private Ryan, he is a master at depicting warfare. There are many superb battle scenes, including a suicidal cavalry charge and the Battle of the Somme itself. But Spielberg never loses control of the horse's story, or the human ones.
Running through the film is a sense of the waste of war, its horror as well as its heroism. There are fine performances by Niels Arestrup as a French farmer and Toby Kebbell as a brave Geordie corporal. In smaller roles, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Marsan also make an impression. But the most memorable performance is by young Irvine, who carries off his role with touching sincerity. John Williams's sweeping score combines beautifully with Janusz Kaminski's masterly cinematography to give it the epic feel of a latterday Gone With The Wind. It runs to nearly two-and-a-half hours, but it's never boring. As always, Spielberg lets his knowledge of screen history infuse his work.
The early English countryside section is amazing and captivating. The battle scenes terrifying yet almost magical. War Horse has already been condemned as safe, conventional film-making, yet it's anything but. Its leading character is not human but a non-speaking horse, and the structure does not fall into the conventional three acts - instead, it is episodic and cyclical, which in many ways is more like real life.
This is a cinematic masterpiece that deserves to stand alongside Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and ET as Spielberg's finest work. By the end, it really makes you feel grateful to be alive; it's a rare film indeed that turns children's literature into a piece with this much emotional depth.