When it comes to building films around a non-human character, Steven Spielberg’s got form. But where his eponymous critters in the past have been supporting players in human stories – E.T. is more about a lonely child of a divorce than a friendly alien – here the horse is very much the point.
Not that we have anything against the various equine performers playing Joey – a frequently affecting lead for whose safety anyone with a pulse will be concerned – but much of the impact of the stage production of War Horse was down to the pioneering puppetry; the men behind the horse. Without this theatrical wow factor, the story’s foibles are glaring, not least its rigidly episodic structure.
You can imagine Joey’s arc working nicely as a six-part BBC series – first sold to a young country boy (Jeremy Irvine), then to the British Army, then passed through a succession of owners and landing, finally, in no man’s land. As a movie, it’s a dimly frustrating experience as a conveyor belt of Brit talent (Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston) get little more than cameos.
By the time a portion of Joey’s journey starts to engage – as does the British-army subplot featuring Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch – the narrative moves on, leaving us with half-told snapshots. Even Irvine’s Albert, the only human with a through line, is too thinly drawn to feel like little more than an archetype. As invested as you become in Joey, there’s no disguising the lack of depth on the human side.
The moments of emotionally charged wonder come in the later stages, where Spielberg’s playing to his strengths, handling brutal battle scenes and an unashamedly sentimental climax with the same steady hand. Comparing the stilted first act in Devon-cum-Hobbiton to the stirringly underplayed no man’s land sequence, it’s tough to believe both came from the same director.