Film Review: War Horse demonstrates expert storytelling with compassion, grace

Steven Spielberg has a penchant for gripping viewers with action while also creating strong emotional atmospheres in his films in which the characters become more than just actors on the screen. War Horse continues in this strain, approaching World War I-torn Europe from the vantage point of a horse enlisted to fight in the war.

Originally a book by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse was also later adapted into a highly successful play by Nick Stafford.

When the horse Joey is introduced, an English boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is raising him. Though Joey is a thoroughbred, Albert promises his parents he can teach Joey to plow their land for farming. Albert meets with many obstacles, but the pair eventually manages to plant a crop, only to have it destroyed in a rainstorm.

In a last-ditch effort to keep his land, Albert’s father sells Joey to a colonel in the British forces headed to France to fight against the Germans. Joey then travels around France, constantly changing hands from the British, to the Germans, to a French family and back to the Germans again.

Joey constantly asserts himself as an incredibly smart animal able to navigate his way through the war-stricken landscape and survive despite people trying to kill him or leave him behind.

Irvine portrays Albert with great skill and evidently develops a profound individual connection with Joey. The unnamed French grandfather, played by Niels Arestrup, displays an intense emotional connection not just to his sickly granddaughter but also to Joey for the short period the family possesses him.

The contrast between the emotional connections formed by the characters and the loud, hectic action of the war around them makes for a compelling narrative. The realistic battle visuals make the film feel as real as the struggles Joey faces working his way back home to Albert.

The story of a human and an animal growing together has been told many times, but War Horse offers a retelling that is wholly unique.