There is only one thing colder than the icy, infinite void of outer space, and that is my heart. No, I’m not being hard on myself, I just know this for a fact now, because Steven Spielberg’s War Horse did absolutely nothing for me. We all know that there are two different kinds of Spielbergs: the fun Spielberg, who directs films like The Adventures of Tintin and Jurassic Park, and the maudlin Spielberg who tries to cram Amistad and War Horse down our sentimental throats. War Horse is a gorgeously filmed World War I epic, but it confuses big emotional set pieces with plot points, and meanders from one disconnected over-emphasized sob-fest to the next. It’s like a two-and-a-half hour sightseeing tour through David O. Selznick’s junk drawer.
War Horse is the cinematic debut of Jeremy Irvine, who plays Albert Narracott, a teenaged Brit with a perhaps unhealthy fixation on one particular horse, whom he names “Joey.” Said horse was purchased by his drunk father, Trainspotting’s Peter Mullan, at an auction, and as a thoroughbred is thoroughly ill-suited to plowing the fields necessary to earn his keep. But Albert believes so hard in his equine pal that they overcome all odds, and so forth, and so on, and presto: Joey plows Albert’s fields. Alas, fate steps in, World War I breaks out, and his father is forced to sell Joey to a kind-hearted British officer played by Thor’s Tom Hiddleston. But then fate steps in again and Joey passes from one owner to the next throughout the course of the conflict. There’s a sickly little French girl, plucky as all get out, and a kindly horse wrangler working for the Germans. At one point there’s a Joyeux Noël armistice declared on both sides of the trenches just to save Joey’s life. That’s a nice little moment, but by that point we’ve forgotten why we’re supposed to be watching the film.
Spielberg, working from a screenplay by Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall and Love Actually’s Richard Curtis, spends a large portion of War Horse setting up the strangely romanticized relationship between Albert and Joey. When they are separated, we know that the only reason for that much buildup is to generate suspense. Will these two starcross'd lovers find each other again? But Albert disappears for most of the film, and the horse – as expertly wrangled as he/she/it/they were – doesn’t seem particularly interested in returning to his master. He seems equally content to be the cherished pet of the adorable French moppet, or to race his best buddy horse on the battlefield. So the journey to the perhaps-inevitable reunion feels one-sided and, all puns intended, lame. Albert returns late in the film, having apparently joined the service for no other reason than to find his horse – he really needs a girlfriend – but by then it’s too late. The damage has been done and the suspense has worn off. The first act of War Horse seems like an unnecessary justification to get to “the good stuff,” i.e. an episodic trek through the World War I from the perspective of a horse. And that story is too unfocused to sustain an entire film.
That said, everyone else in the theater seemed to love it. I guess their heartstrings were pulled taut enough that plucking them made a pleasant noise. My heartstrings are just fine the way they are, and need a bit more finesse from anyone who tries to play them. War Horse is as beautifully shot and composed as anything Spielberg has ever done, which is no small praise, but that craftsmanship is in service of a flimsy tale, too awkwardly structured and melodramatic to maintain my rooting interest. That said, Albert’s family has a guard goose, so I guess it’s not all bad.