War Horse, a film from director Steven Spielberg that opens Christmas Day, follows various characters in World War I in a vignette style, with the horse Joey as the unifying thread. Good screenwriting buoys the film and keeps the many characters vivid and the story central. Although the book War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo, follows the narrative through the point of view of the horse, the film doesn't tell the story through the horse's voice. The horse does have a personality, as much as a real horse would, but the human characters living through the onslaught of war are central, and compelling.
Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the boy who trains the horse and eventually follows him into war, has the most screen time of any of the characters in the film, but he doesn't capture the audience-Irvine has never appeared in a movie before. Otherwise the acting is strong throughout, and Emily Watson is superb as Albert's mother, Rose. The film should have spent less time with Albert and more time with two young German brothers who later take the horse Joey under their wing, for example.
The movie runs nearly 2½ hours, and sometimes it drags. The film's producer, longtime Spielberg colleague Kathleen Kennedy, said the pace is slower because Spielberg decided to give attention to landscapes and wide shots, "not a lot of close-ups and fast cutting." Even if the pace is sometimes slow or uneven, the story is epic, warm, beautifully shot, and very Spielberg, harkening back to the familial themes of E.T. as much as it does to his war movies. Spielberg is working with the all-stars he has worked with across his career: editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and composer John Williams, all of whom worked on Saving Private Ryan and Spielberg's other famous World War II film, Schindler's List. War Horse is a family movie, though it is rated PG-13 for some stark moments of war.
See "Horse of a different color" from the Dec. 31 issue of WORLD.