The second Spielberg film in six months, War Horse was expected to be the heavy hitter of the pair compared to Tintin (which some dismissed as a technical exercise), and whilst its subject matter and pedigree certainly lends itself more to that assessment it is by far the lesser of the two films.
The principal problem is one of consistency. It opens well enough but peaks about forty minutes in, dips and then recovers for the final forty minutes or so – the problem is that this leaves a middle hour that whilst not bad per se, is certainly weak enough that one questions the need to leave it in at its current length rather than trim it back and end up with a stronger picture. Part of the problem may be that what works on stage doesn’t necessarily work in film (a comment I more often make with regards musicals). War Horse isn’t bad, but this dedication to the original source rather than adapting it to the media gets in the way.
The strongest parts are the early scenes amongst the British Cavalry and the latter ones in the trenches. It is here that Spielberg seems to feel more comfortable, having long been accused of being overtly sentimental his recent output has had a harder edge and it is these scenes that benefit from that direction. When he is required to fall back on a more sentimental depiction of events (in particular a sequence involving a young girl and her grandfather) he seems to flounder, not sure where to pitch the tone. Some judicious cuts here would help, although they would require a slight alteration to the ending, but nothing too damaging. The cavalry charge itself is beautifully realised, depicting in a single move the industrialisation of war with the introduction of the machine gun. Later this is realised in the scenes set in the trenches, but here the problem is one of focus as it shifts from horse to human to horse to human, often seemingly in an arbitrary fashion. All of this leads to the sense that this is a lesser Spielberg offering rather than a top flight one.
There is much to admire, the cinematography – when it isn’t mired in chocolate box depictions of rural Devon – is superb, all drab browns & greys, and the acting (from both four and two legged actors) is excellent, Tom Hiddleston in particular standing out as the young cavalry officer. There’s a slight problem that the principal character is a little too innocent in his ways to be truly sympathetic, and Peter Mullan & Emily Watson are somewhat underused, but elsewhere the large cast is uniformly excellent.
All in all, not a vintage Spielberg but still of sufficient quality to be worth the ticket price, although likely to be glossed over when the large career retrospective rolls around in two years.