Over the years Steven Spielberg has certainly adapted his style to fit the project. The black & white cinematography in SCHINDLER'S LIST added a grim solemnity. The desaturated colors and herky-jerky photography of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN only matched the gritty war sequences. In WAR HORSE, he tackles the first World War with a touch that matches the melodramatic nature of the source book and play. He channels the melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s like John Ford's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, creating an almost surreal fable.
Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan, BRAVEHEART) is a war vet who drinks away his bad memories. He's a poor farmer who decides one day at auction to not let his rich, pompous landlord Lyons (David Thewlis, HARRY POTTER) to outbid him for a thoroughbred horse. When he brings it home to his wife Rose (Emily Watson, BREAKING THE WAVES), she gets that look that only long-suffering wives get in movies like this one. Their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine, TV's LIFE BITES) promises to train the horse. When the rent comes due and they are short, Albert, as hard headed as his father, sets out to turn a race horse into a plow steed.
But as one might expect, Albert and his horse Joey get separated when the war breaks out and the young man is determined to reunite with his four-legged friend. Like Robert Bresson's AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, the story of an animal allows the viewer to peek into the lives of the people the creature comes in contact with. Capt. Nicholls (Tim Hiddleston, THOR) embodies the British term of keeping a stiff upper lip. He uses Joey to challenge the snobby Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch, TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY). The young fragile Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her beloved grandfather (Niels Arestrup, A PROPHET) get a new lease on life thanks to the horse. The beast's encounters will also include helping two young German defectors, motivating an animal loving private and inspiring a momentary truce.
This lush production shines with Janusz Kaminski's vfx assisted cinematography. Spielberg doesn't hold back with unnatural red and orange sunsets and vast green landscapes. The Narracott's farm is like a fairy tale cottage. These idyllic images of the home are is stark contrast to the bleak, dark trench warfare scenes. The image of Joey trapped in barbed wire in the middle of No Man's Land between the English and German sides is classic.
Spielberg finds grand moral themes about life and death much like he did in RYAN. Albert's friend from Devon is assigned the terrible task of shooting any of his fellow soldiers who turn back from their run across the battlefield. So often, luck determines whether one lives or dies. Grander motivations mean nothing and the soldiers are fighting for their fellow solider… and in this case that means man and horse. Spielberg brings to light the great service that horses provided in WWI and the idea of them being drafted into fighting without a choice is not a light metaphor.
WAR HORSE earns the waterworks it creates with archetypal characters that we care about. Spielberg explores one of his favor themes of family on a grand scale. Chiefly, fathers and sons reconnect over shared experiences. Albert, played with the perfect dose of innocent gumption by newcomer Irvine, doesn't understand his father, brought to life by Mullen as a proud working class man that only Ireland and the movies can produce. But in the final shot words aren't needed to communicate that Albert's opinion has changed. Spielberg's skills as a master filmmaker make this happen so well.