Since the London previews of War Horse, British television and press have been brimming with War Horse hype. BBC breakfast claimed only a person with a heart of stone could hold back tears. So, expecting the film to be a powerful tear jerker from start to finish, I armed myself with tissues. But clutching them in readiness throughout, they turned out to be uncalled for.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s book and Scripted by Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) and Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually), War Horse follows the relationship between West County boy Albert Narracott and his horse Joey. At the outbreak of the First World War, Joey is sold to the British army. It becomes Albert’s quest to reunite with him and, when he comes of age, Albert also finds himself on the frontline.

On the plus side, the story did hold my interest and the film felt much shorter than the two and half hours it was. With its origins in a children’s book, it is of course necessary to accept the film’s somewhat predictable, cliche and unrealistic plot developments. But, in order to compensate for the limitations of the script, the cast and characterisation needed to be more compelling than what is actually delivered. Jeremy Irvine’s performance as Albert Narracott was pleasant but falls far short of persuasive. Performances by supporting actors Emily Watson (as Rose Narracott) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Major Jamie Stewart) are less convincing. During the first twenty minutes, becoming absorbed in the story is made especially difficult by an array of flawed West Country accents.

Cast performances are strongest and the film most realistic during War Horse’s battle scenes, particularly in the trenches and no-man’s land. The scene where Albert and his comrades go over the top into no-man’s land was the only one during which I was close to tears. But even this had more to do with my own thoughts about going over the top – that men actually experienced these horrors on the frontline – than the way War Horse approached the topic. I have to agree with Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, that this isn’t up to parr with Richard Curtis’ own  scripting of similar Blackadder Goes Forth scenes.

For animal lovers, the film is likely to hit many of the right notes. While most of the animal action is well put together, including Joey’s sprint through no-man’s land, a few action sequences are clumsy, immediately pulling the viewer out of War Horse’s imagined world.

Director Steven Spielberg’s trademark magic is also lacking and, although he has cited this as his most British film to date, War Horse has a definite Hollywood feel. The sunsets and score are all a little too much. Shots of the English farm at both the beginning and end of War Horse feel more like the American Wild West than exposed West Country farmland.

In many ways, War Horse is a solid family film balancing drama with more lighthearted moments. But, with a disappointingly un-British feel, War Horse ultimately lacked the poignant scripting and powerful performances from its cast that could have elevated it to a higher level.

VERDICT:   ✪ ✪ ✪
For the official War Horse film site click here
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