Steven Spielberg gallops into the Oscar race with War Horse, a moving adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel and subsequent stage play. A superb blend of what the beloved director does best - emotion and spectacle - it manages to spin its equine hero into a memorable character while keeping in sight the heartbreaking devastation of the First World War.
War Horse is also a timely reminder of Spielberg's behind-the-camera versatility. Hot on the heels of the rollicking blockbuster The Adventures of Tintin, here's an expertly-crafted drama that tugs at the heartstrings. It should be noted that 2011 marks the director's third quickfire career double-punch after 1993's Jurassic Park/Schindler's List combo and 2005's War of the Worlds/Munich. Even in his sixties, Spielberg isn't lacking inspiration.
War Horse centres on Devon boy Albert (Jeremy Irvine) as he raises foal Joey to help plough fields and keep his out-of-luck parents' (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson) farm from falling into the hands of landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). As war breaks out, Joey is drafted into the cavalry by Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and embarks on a journey that takes him and pal Topthorn into the hands of two AWOL soldiers, a young French girl and her grandfather, and the German army before a miraculous break for freedom.
Classy performances from the cast only boost the merits of the film, which adeptly juggles its vast ensemble of predominantly British character actors (Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Marsan among them). Newcomer Irvine provides the solid centre, coming of age when Albert is pushed onto the front lines to experience a battle that unfolds like a Disneyfied version of Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach assault.
Joey himself is at the heart of a breathtaking set piece, a sweeping run across the perilous No Man's Land that leads to a touching scene between Toby Kebbell's Geordie soldier and a German counterpart (listen out for a zinging gag, likely from the pen of co-writer Richard Curtis).
The widescreen landscape shots and rousing score from John Williams (who else?) evoke its maker's cinema idol David Lean, while the heart-on-sleeve emotions are pure Spielberg. At times it may slip into gushy sentimentality and lack dramatic subtlety (as in the sunset-hour, Andrew Wyeth-inspired finale), but up on the big screen it's a magnificent crowd-pleaser.
War Horse may not quite reach the giddy heights of its director's best, yet it's further proof that he's still perfectly tuned into his audience. Steven Spielberg is still undoubtedly the king of populist cinema.
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> War Horse in pictures