The play War Horse is universally acclaimed, loved, and has reduced many of our friends to floods of tears. Our concern for the film was that Steven Spielberg’s not a director known for reining in excessive sentimentality.
On a farm in Devon, young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) forms a special bond with a horse his father (Peter Mullan) buys to spite his landlord (David Thewlis), and proves everyone wrong when he trains him. But when the war comes Dad sells the horse to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), which puts the horse on a journey that includes soldiers from both sides as well as civilians.
While it’s certainly guilty of this to some extent, there are also moments of moving humanity. Things get off to an unsatisfying start, with family life on the (sort of) hard-scrabble Devonshire farm being exactly as clichéd as we feared. But once boy and horse are separated, things pick up and Spielberg starts hitting the right notes. The scenes with Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) are the high point with a poignant depiction of a unit not ready for 20th Century warfare. But the subsequent chapters, including the German teenage soldiers who decide to desert and the jam-maker and his granddaughter, don’t quite get that balance right despite good performances.
It’s not without its touching moments. The scenes in the trenches and No Man’s Land are powerful, as you’d expect. When Spielberg presents moments of humanity, both tragic and heroic, in the face of war, you remember how great he can be. But too often sentiment gives way to sentimentalism.
War Horse is a solid enough family film with a wealth of acting talent but it could have done with a firmer hand on the syrup.