In early 1900s Devon, teenager Albert (Irvine) lives on a farm with his impulsive-drunk father Ted (Mullan) and his tough-minded mum Rose (Watson).
When Ted overpays for the wrong horse to work the fields, Albert adopts the horse, names him Joey and teaches him the ropes. But when war breaks out in Europe, Ted sells Joey to a cavalry captain (Hiddleston). At war, Joey changes hands between British and German officers, a young soldier (Kross) and a French farmer (Arestrup). Meanwhile, Albert joins the army, heading into the trenches to search for Joey.
While the play is a wonder of imaginative theatre, Spielberg is limited by cinematic realism. Not that it's terribly realistic, with chocolate-box England picture-perfect France (also shot in England). The gruelling Somme wasteland is recreated almost as a fantasy sequence, while the epilogue is shot under an orange sky that echoes Gone With the Wind. But Joey's journey is still the emotional core, as he meets a variety of people ane even befriends another horse, Topthorn.
This certainly isn't Spielberg's subtlest film. His direction overstates every emotion with the help of John Williams' soaring score. As the cast members are swept up into Spielberg's earnest style, only Watson keeps her feet grounded in wry honesty. The battlefield sequences couldn't be any more intense, but they're assembled with invention and skill to make us feel the horrific situation. And the extensive effects work is remarkably seamless.
In the end, there isn't much more to this than a boy and his horse, separated by what was at the time (and might still be) the most unthinkable event in human history. Every element works to draw out our emotional response to the twists and turns of the plot and the wide range of characters. And it's a moment later on, when two soldiers from opposite sides of the war work together to help a horse in distress, that lowers our guard for a series of emotional gut-punches that follow. It may be contrived and sappy, but Spielberg knows how to make it work.
Run time: 146 mins
In Theaters: Sunday 25th December 2011
Box Office USA: $79.9M
Box Office Worldwide: $177M
Distributed by: Walt Disney Pictures
Production compaines: DreamWorks SKG, Reliance Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment, Kennedy/Marshall Company, The
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 164 Rotten: 49
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hiddleston as Capt. James Nicholls, Benedict Cumberbatch as Maj. Jamie Stewart, Toby Kebbell as Geordie Soldier, Emily Watson as Rose Narracott, Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott, Patrick Kennedy as Lt. Charlier Waverly, David Thewlis as Lyons, Peter Mullan as Ted Narracott, David Kross as Pvt. Günther Schröder, Nicolas Bro as Friedrich, David Dencik as Base Camp Officer, Eddie Marsan as Sgt. Fry, Celine Buckens as Emilie, David Kross as Gunther, Matt Milne as Andrew Easton, Robert Emms as David Lyons, Rainer Bock as Brandt, Geoff Bell as Sgt. Sam Perkins, Tony Pitts as Sgt. Martin, Irfan Hussein as Sgt. Maj. Singh, Pip Torrens as Maj. Tompkins
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