Not to be outdone by pal Martin Scorsese’s foray in to the family film market with the sparkling Hugo, Steven Spielberg returns with his adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s tale of a boy and his horse, and the National Theatre stage play it inspired. It’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking from the veteran director, perfectly judged in tone; it doesn’t forget who the story is aimed at, but neither does it shy away from the horrors of the conflict.
Beginning in an extremely tranquil pre-war Devon (complete with John Williams’ pastoral score), we spend a long-ish first act watching Joey being raised on a farm run by Peter Mullan’s alcoholic war veteran, who bought him in a fit of drunken pride. His son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who immediately bonds with the feisty animal (Joey, not Peter Mullan), manages against all the odds to train the thoroughbred for farm work, only for WW1 to intervene – Joey is recruited in to the cavalry. His trials and tribulations on the continent effectively illustrate the tragedy that war leaves in its wake, whether man or beast.
Initially it all seems a bit too quaint and picturesque, but I suspect this is entirely deliberate; it certainly makes the contrast with the later war-set chapters all the more effective. The sets and photography also feel deliberately artificial at times – a tip of the hat perhaps to the importance the play had in rescuing the book from obscurity, but also a neat way of smoothing the rough edges from the violence and splashing the screen with vivid colours and atmosphere. No terrifying Saving Private Ryan-style battles here (though the recreation of the Somme is suitably tense); just a calm and carefully crafted story that can be enjoyed and appreciated by almost any age group. Once you’ve adjusted to the film’s earnestness and simplicity of storytelling, there’s a genuinely moving and timeless tale to be discovered.
A longer version of this review can be found at The Digital Fix.