So I finally got round to watching Steven Spielberg's big screen adaptation of the book and stage play War Horse last night, and what a very nice film it was too.
I'll say nice rather not great, because essentially-and this was my first ever experience with the story- it is just Black Beauty in a slightly different context. As such it's prone to formulaic storytelling which you can't help feel you've seen before, and not just via the aforementioned equestrian epic by Anna Sewell, but also in that it, being a Spielberg film, focuses on that director's preoccupations; the nature of father and son and the understanding they reach via the involvement of an 'alien' interloper.
That said, it looks sumptuous. It's shot on film and virtually nothing is these days I believe, which gives the English and French countryside a rich texture and the battlefields, The Somme, a gritty, grimy realism. The first hour of the film utterly captivates and as such licks along at a fair old pace giving more fidgety film fans hope that the epic two hour twenty running length may seem much shorter; but once we leave England and Joey, the war horse of the title, falls into multiple hands the film slows and each person's ownership and involvement in the horse's story (the Black Beauty similarity) gets less and less interesting and involving.
The cast is great and it's almost as if each and every actor knows to stand back and allow the horse to take the honours and the screen. As such actors like Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Toby Kebbell, Liam Cunningham and the great Eddie Marsan give pitch perfect performances that don't threaten to swamp the film and take the limelight away from its true star; the War Horse.
Also of delight and note is the appearance of Danish actor Nicolas Bro as a sympathetic horse loving foot soldier of the Kaiser's army.
He's instantly familiar to anyone who, like me, has been totally wrapped up in The Killing II in which he played idealistic truth seeking MP Buch. He's my one to watch, given that he has such an amazing character actor face, similar to Timothy Spall in fact.
You see what I mean?!
Of the British actors, Cumberbatch (Sherlock) is great in what is, in keeping with the film, a small but dignified role. He captures the fighting spirit and stiff upper lip nature of an officer and a gentleman as he occupies that grey area of bravery and foolishness in what was a hellish time so difficult for us to comprehend in our safe little lives now. I do love Cumberbatch, and I do wish him well, but after this and his turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I already feel annoyed with Hollywood as they're sure to snaffle him away; he's ours dammit!
Toby Kebbell (Control, Dead Man's Shoes, Black Mirror) also has a vital role as Geordie Tommy, Colin, who after a genuine heart in the mouth moment for our hero Joey in No Man's Land, comes to the rescue. His scenes and dialogue with his German rival, as they briefly forget the war and combine their efforts to help the horse is at once both beautiful and conspicuously stagey. This is the once scene you feel is verbatim from the play, but has to exist in the film so you generously give it the benefit of the doubt.
Spielberg reminds us why he's such a capable and talented family film director in that, despite the horrors the film depicts, he handles it with a sensitive touch; not shying away from what simply has to be addressed (the scenes at The Somme are harrowing and poignant) but with enough flair to bear in mind the little ones who will be watching. As such a lot of the graphic nature of war is either alluded to (we see horses and soldiers charge into machine gun fire, and then appear in the next shot riderless like some hellish Grand National, or the beautiful way he uses the blades of a windmill - don't ask, just watch) or appears briefly yet completely honestly (the shelling has soldiers flying out into the air from the trenches in the background, and the machine guns of The Somme pick out soldiers around our leading men)
In summary, it's a very good film but I can't help feeling the play, with it's innovative 'puppetry' would be a more astonishing and memorable watch.