Review: War Horse fails to make it from page and stage

War Horse. (12A) Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullen, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch and David Thewlis. 147 mins. **

The children’s book by Michael Morpurgo and the National Theatre production are untouchable national treasures. Spielberg’s film version is unlikely to inspire quite such level of affection but it will be much loved. But, against my better judgment, I am going to try to make a case against War Horse.

Primarily, I can’t really see the point in a children’s story which isn’t suitable for children. The title creature is part Champion the Wonder Horse, part Yellow Rolls-Royce. After forming an indestructible bond with his owner Albert (Irvine), the heroic equine is sent off to the First World War where it performs heroic feats of endurance and passes from one owner to the next, each representing a different side of the conflict.

Presenting the war through the eyes of a horse may work beautifully on the page and on stage because illustration and puppets make an abstraction of the horror. But, on screen, it comes across as a queasy mix of pantomime and Private Ryan.

Even allowing for it being a difficult task to pull off, this is below par Spielberg. The first hour in which Albert breaks in the horse and tries to save the family farm is interminable old tosh, like a CBBC version of Ryan’s Daughter. When we are thrown into the conflict, the film offers up a few strong sequences but there are also some terrible choices.

Spoilers: the worst example of this is the final scene, an emotional reunion shot against a blood red sky, reminiscent of Gone With The Wind or the bright sunset which Del Boy and Rodney walked off into in Only Fools And Horses. It’s feels like a quick fix, a last-ditch attempt to pump in some emotion. But it’s so overbearing and inappropriate, it flattens any charge the scene might have carried.

Of course, this may sound all too predictable. Marble-hearted cynics with scrunched-up souls have always distrusted Spielberg’s unguarded emotionalism and when it comes with a script by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, two masters of tasteful sentimentalism, even much more so. But this is Spielberg – the man who can melt the coldest heart – and this is the stuff he is the master of. I expected a tough and ultimately unsuccessful effort to hold in the tears but, in the end, it was a breeze.