Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Epic that canters off with our hearts

Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's hugely popular novel is real tear-jerker. By Damon Smith

Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Niels Arestrup, Matt Milne, Toby Kebbell

Director: Steven Spielberg

The casualties of war extend far beyond the terrible loss of human life. During the First World War, thousands of pigeons carried vital messages over long distances when other lines of communication were compromised.

Dogs detected mines and dug out victims of bomb blasts while millions of horses, donkeys and mules carried supplies and ammunition or charged into battle in the Allied cavalry.

Eight million horses perished in appalling conditions. A dramatic memorial in London, sculpted from stone and brass by artist David Backhouse, pays tribute to the fallen creatures, great and small.

Author Michael Morpurgo expressed his debt of gratitude in the 1982 children's novel War Horse, which has been adapted into a breathtaking stage production on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now, Steven Spielberg directs this handsome Oscar-tipped film version of Morpurgo's heart-rending tale from a script by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall.

Alcohol-soaked farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) pays over the odds for a foal called Joey to spite landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) when he is supposed to be buying a plough horse.

Long-suffering wife Rose (Emily Watson) despairs, wondering how they will pay the rent, while son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) promises to train the animal to work the fields.

Ted tearfully acknowledges the error of his ways and fully expects his wife to abandon him. "I might hate you more, but I'll never love you less," Rose assures him tenderly.

When Europe goes to war, Ted sells Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who promises to take good care of the mount.

Albert subsequently learns of tragedy on the battlefield and enlists in the Army with best friend Andrew (Matt Milne) to track down Joey and return the horse to the farm. Meanwhile, behind enemy lines, Joey is captured by the Germans and embarks on a momentous journey in the company of a young soldier called Gunther (David Kross) and a French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup).

War Horse is a deeply moving and sweeping drama that harnesses Spielberg's virtuosity behind the camera.

The film-maker conjures some breathtaking images, such as the deaths of two characters by firing squad which are obscured from view at the crucial moment by the tilting sail of a windmill.

Scenes in the trenches recall the pyrotechnic-laden hell of Saving Private Ryan and a pivotal scene of Joey ensnared in barbed wire in no man's land during the Second Battle of The Somme is genuinely horrifying.

Irvine is an endearing and steadfast hero, willing to die for his horse, and the supporting cast embraces the script's earthy humour and sentimentality.

Invariably, the four-legged stars canter away with our tear-stained affections, beautifully embodying the millions of noble beasts which gave their lives for our freedom.

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