War Horse probably won't be for everyone and you can approximately gauge your reaction to the film as a whole by the way you feel about a scene that takes place early in the picture. Cornish teenager Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is attempting to plough the family's field with Joey, a horse patently unsuited to farming life that Albert's father (Peter Mullan) foolishly purchased at an auction. The Narracotts' future could depend on their ability to grow crops here and an expectant crowd – including their sneering landlord (David Thewlis) – has gathered to watch his futile efforts. Initially, the boy and horse get nowhere, despite their admirable grit and determination, but as the rain begins to fall and the ground softens, Albert gains a second wind. Suddenly, the indomitable pair are churning up the soil, and when a boulder blocks their path they simply drive on, with the plough cleaving the stone in two.
If you roll your eyes and scoff at the sight of horse beating rock, then War Horse is not the movie for you. Steven Spielberg's screen version of Michael Morpurgo's novel – and the hugely successful stage play it spawned – is an entirely earnest piece of work, and that in itself makes it something of an anomaly in today's cinematic landscape. The central character of the film is not a human capable of cynicism, but a horse and therefore a true innocent, so Spielberg has made a film reflecting that. We experience the First World War through Joey as he is first bought by Captain Jim Nichols (Tom Hiddleston – is any contemporary actor better suited to wartime roles?) and subsequently changes hands in war-torn France, experiencing both the kindness and cruelty that mankind is capable of. Joey becomes a metaphor for humanity in the same way that Bresson's donkey did in Au hasard Balthazar, reflecting the best and worst of us.
War Horse also represents the best and worst of Spielberg, but I think the director's virtues shine through with this material more than his flaws tend to hobble it. After making a number of acclaimed films and television series on the subject of World War II, this is Spielberg's first foray into the Great War of 1914-1918, a conflict still largely underrepresented on screen, but there's no place for the blood-spattered verisimilitude of Saving Private Ryan here. War Horse is a family drama that requires a more restrained approach, and Spielberg is at his very best when he strikes a delicate balance between showing us just enough violence – or simply showing us the threat of violence – and letting the audience imagine the rest for themselves. He stages a dazzling sequence in which the British cavalry – with Capt. Nichols atop Joey – charge a seemingly unarmed German battalion, before Spielberg's camera glides ahead to reveal the hidden danger they are riding into. Later, an execution is partially hidden by a rotating windmill, but is no less chilling for it, and a gas attack is portrayed in all its panic-inducing immediacy, while the vivid depiction of No Man's Land, with its damp, rat-infested trenches and bodies strewn across the black mud, leaves us in no doubt about the hellish conditions these soldiers fought under.
The problem with Spielberg – particularly latter-day Spielberg – is that he often doesn't know when to quit, and War Horse occasionally risks undermining its own emotional power by straining too hard for effect, with John Williams' ubiquitous but forgettable score being an overbearing presence. The other issue the film has is perhaps one it has inherited from the source material, with War Horse feeling episodic in its construction, as Joey moves from one encounter to the next in a series of chapters that occasionally feel disjointed as a whole. The best of these are wonderful, though, and they mark the few occasions that the human actors step out from Joey's shadow to make an impact on the picture. Niels Arestrup brings a gravitas to the film as a farmer whose granddaughter (excellent debutant Celine Buckens) forms a bond with Joey, and the talented British actor Toby Kebbell gets a welcome opportunity to shine on the big stage in my favourite scene in the film. He plays a soldier who finds the horse in No Man's Land, entangled in barbed wire, and with the help of a German soldier (Hinnerk Schönemann) he works to free the animal. In this witty, touching encounter, the two men briefly bond over the wounded animal, before they head back to their trenches and prepare to possibly kill each other the next day.
What War Horse reinforces above all else is that Steven Spielberg is a master at this kind of grand, sincere, old-fashioned filmmaking. I can't think of many directors who could be better suited to this story, and while some will resist the overt sentimentality on display in the film, many will surely be moved by the film's indefatigable optimism against the backdrop of such death and devastation, and the film may be a particular treat for children. When I watched War Horse the audience contained a large number of younger viewers who remained utterly rapt throughout, and it made me wonder how many filmmakers could make a 2½-hour film about the First World War that is capable of transfixing audiences of all ages in this way. Steven Spielberg has always possessed that invaluable ability to imbue his stories with emotions that have a universal resonance, and in years to come we may well look back on War Horse as yet another family classic from this great director.