Review: War Horse (12A) ****

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A MASTER storyteller like Steven Spielberg can nimbly skip betwixt rural Devon and the Western Front and make each panorama as vivid and authentic as the last. And War Horse is a mighty tale of tranquil peace turned cacophonous conflict with an equine hero whose story is told across multiple backdrops.

There is a mouth-watering cast at the heart of War Horse but the tale being told is, as the title suggests, that of the magnificent animal who wins hearts wherever and whenever he canters across the screen.

In Spielberg’s latest, a boy’s best friend is his horse. Joey is a thoroughbred who becomes a farm horse, then a cavalry mount, then a fun ride and finally a gun horse. His journey is told in episodic, portmanteau style from English owner to German via a brief sojourn with the French and before heading back to the Jerries and Tommies.

And if the film is never quite the sum of its parts – we demand more from Spielberg; he does a fine job but, of course, he nearly always does – then the fun of star-spotting fills the gaps in the narrative.

The familiar faces in the male-dominated cast include Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Niels Arestrup, Geoff Bell, Eddie Marsan, Toby Kebbel and David Thewlis. But it is Benedict Cumberbatch as a glory-hunting cavalry officer (“Fear God! Honour the King!”) who seizes the limelight.

What Spielberg achieves is that acute balancing act between the idyllic green grass of Devon and the muddy, corpse-strewn waste of No Man’s Land. Just as in Saving Private Ryan, War Horse has moments of calm punctuated by scenes of terror and violence.

This is a majestic movie. It is also overlong and could easily lose two of its anthology tales without affecting the narrative. As a novel-turned-play-turned-movie it will doubtless not please all, but it enjoys that familiar Spielberg touch and the horse is as lovable an animal hero as ever graced the screen.