"War Horse" feels like Steven Spielberg trying on a nice-looking pair of shoes that don't quite fit him; he walks with an awkward, uneven gait (unlike the steady confidence of his "Adventures of Tintin," which was released on the same weekend in the US). I could sense him affecting a style not entirely his own, channeling an old-fashioned sentimentality. Make no mistake, Spielberg has his own brand of sentimentality, but to me this feels broader, more artificial, applied self-consciously to achieve an effect that doesn't quite work.
Consider early scenes in which Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) – a teenager living on a farm in Devon, England, on the eve of World War I – trains his beloved horse Joey to plow his family's field in front of his friends and neighbors. There are tight closeups of his best friend watching the horse perform unlikely feats while saying with slack-jawed wonder things like "Would you look at that!" or "What a miraculous horse!" Neither of those are direct quotes, but you get the idea. Albert's father (Peter Mullan) is the kind of drunken, well-meaning screw-up who is accompanied by dum-dee-dum music cues and a wacky duck. He has a patient but put-upon wife (Emily Watson) who harrumphs at his foolish decisions, but when he asks if she'll ever stop loving him he insists, "I may hate you more, but I could never love you less." There's also the family's landlord (David Thewlis), who snivels like his life depends on it.
Spielberg often wears his heart on his filmic sleeve, but he's no hackish amateur, so when he creates scenes and characters of such blatant exaggeration, I think he must have some intention besides merely tugging our heartstrings, some reference I'm not getting. But regardless of his aim or inspiration, the scenes don't work. They're hackneyed and put-on. The screenplay by Lee Hall ("Billy Elliot") and Richard Curtis ("Love Actually") stays mostly on the surface, providing exposition or explaining the emotions of characters who are scarcely deeper than sketches. Even scenes that should work land just wide of the mark, including one in which German and British soldiers call a momentary truce from their respective trenches in order to free poor Joey from tangled barbed wire. Beneath the violence and bloodshed, you see, soldiers are just people, more similar than dissimilar no matter which side they're on. But it's too obvious Spielberg is making that point, so the moment feels manufactured.
I'm seldom convinced by films that attempt to anthropomorphize animals – not in the sense of "Chicken Run" or "Finding Nemo," which are couched squarely in fantasy, but in the sense of trying to convince me of how badly Seabiscuit wants to win the Big Race. The nobility of animals is mostly, I think, an invention of humans. Animals are just animals, and I doubt they have much sense of the intentions we ascribe to them. So in that sense, Joey didn't convince me as a character in his own right, but he is effective as a storytelling device. In his travels through Europe – from a young British soldier (Tom Hiddleston) to an innocent French farm girl (Celine Buckens) – the horse witnesses, but only we the audience can truly understand, unique experiences of the war. Thus, it's not the horse's feelings for the humans that are meaningful, but the humans' feelings for the horse, what it represents to them, how its arrival affects their lives.
I wish, then, that the film offered a fuller perspective of the war. What we get instead are isolated vignettes that present familiar motifs – patriotic soldiers, young deserters, French farmhouse civilians whose house is raided for supplies, young men in the trenches – but the war that unites them remains vague, so much so that when the war ends I half-expected someone to ask, "Did we win?" The whole film is a bit like that, disconnected from itself. It's a valiant effort from Spielberg, though largely unsuccessful, and it features excellent cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, especially in the very last scene, which, striking as it is, feels like it belongs to another movie. Sometimes the whole movie feels like it belongs to another movie.