The sheer power of images is dominating movie talk these days, with The Artist and Hugo making a belated case for silent cinema. Yet it should come as no surprise that the year’s most potent work—largely word-free but aching with feeling—comes from Hollywood’s longtime resident genius, Steven Spielberg.
War Horse is, on the face of it, the silent film of the year: in company with 1979’s masterful The Black Stallion and replete with the kind of poetry that Spielberg (who sometimes tries too hard to seem adult) hasn’t mustered since E.T. Swaddled in pastoral, Fordian lushness and John Williams’s orchestral grandeur, the epic drama defies you not to sway with an Irish lad (Irvine) connecting with his farm’s new animal, purchased by his father in a show of pride.
These blue-sky visions give way to the sooty clouds of WWI, into which equine Joey is conscripted, the boy following behind. Sticklers will miss the puppetry of the acclaimed stage play, but Spielberg’s literalness flatters the material, shifting it from abstraction toward a real-life miracle.
What’s missing, then? There’s no fiery central performance in the mix (the horse doesn’t count), and once Emily Watson’s hardscrabble mom is rotated out of the action, you yearn for an anchor. But you won’t forget the sight of a wave of unmounted steeds leaping over German turrets, their riders cut down. War Horse feels unearthed from a simpler Hollywood; behind its sap (perhaps unavoidable) is age-old timber.