Maybe it’s a rite of passage. Like your first sip of alcohol, or leaving home. Something to add to the list of Signs That You Are Growing Old™: not enjoying a Michael Morpurgo story.
I really wanted to like War Horse. I love animals, I like history, I loved Private Peaceful when I was younger. But there were a few too many faintly ridiculous twists in this plot. I won’t include any spoilers, but throughout the film, while the ten-year-old inside was willing myself to accept it, the more cynical twenty-something part of my brain kept screaming, ‘WHAT? WHAT?!’ The storyline was grandiose, encompassing love, loss, war and peace, and a handful different lives – but what should have been engrossing was instead disappointingly superficial.
There were aspects of the story that were just a little bit weird. Try as I might, I found it impossible to get my head round the relationship between Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his titular horse, Joey. Maybe a horse owner would disagree, but I couldn’t quite believe that Albert would offer to go to war for his horse, or would lament like a lover (e.g. “We will be together again”, which edges a little too close to Equus territory). Maybe I’m missing something. But nevertheless, unable to fully understand the relationship upon which the whole film is based, I guess I was doomed from the start.
It might not be Morpurgo’s fault, though. More than once, Senor Spielbergo’s special effects were cringingly bad. The intended dramatic impact of a pleasant day turning into a torrential downpour in a second was obvious to all, but it was less effective as a result. Often the techniques used were too Hollywood, too blatant. If effects are blatant enough to make the audience draw back from the story, it’s hard to get swept up in the drama – and a deeply involved audience is what I think the story probably requires.
A story like this may well have worked better in the written word, too. War Horse sweeps across time and place, and the viewer never really gets a chance to get to know a lot of the characters. The film could have ensured a bit more emotional involvement had it developed its characters a bit more. Unfortunately I haven’t read the book – maybe Morpurgo achieves this – but as it was in the film, characters with their separate storylines came and went without making much of an impact.
This is not to say that the actors were at fault – they generally did very well, dodgy West Country accents aside. For all of his slightly suspect and giggle-inducing lines, Jeremy Irvine proved to be convincing as Albert. This is his first big role, but that wasn’t noticeable – I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from him soon. Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, as Albert’s parents, provided a solid support act to back him up. And Joey, or rather the fourteen horses used for his part, performed a number of impressive feats, although no doubt helped out by special effects – that was one area where Spielberg excelled.
War Horse wasn’t quite the fresh look at an overlooked element of the First World War that I’d hoped for, but it does as well as it can as a film about a boy who loves his horse. It’s not a classic, as its disappointment at the BAFTAs has shown, but if I were younger and a little less cynical I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more.