THE distinctive thing about Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling children’s novel, War Horse, was the way it described the horrors of the First World War through the eyes of the horse which made no distinction between enemy nations but just judged them as people.
Then followed a stage version which was acclaimed for its spectacular puppetry and physical movement which achieved an almost metaphysical effect.
Now we have the movie of War Horse (Cert 12A) and neither of those narrative forms translate to the screen. What we have instead is the epic style of Steven Spielberg, perhaps the one film-maker who could make something of this.
The story is simply and appealingly told (script by Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall and Notting Hill’s Richard Curtis) with no frills interspersed with two or three breathtaking scenes of battle (echoes of Saving Private Ryan) before a sentimental ending guaranteed not to leave a dry eye in the house,
We begin down in picture postcard Devon where drunken tenant farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) is goaded by his landlord (David Thewlis) into blowing money he can’t afford on a horse which is more of a thoroughbred than the workhorse they need.
But young son Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the creature he names Joey and against the odds trains him to plough the field and save the family farm. But it’s a brief triumph because when war breaks out Joey is sold to the cavalry. Albert is too young to enlist but vows to follow him to war and be reunited one day.
After the leisurely opening down on the farm the horse’s remarkable wartime journey sweeps along with scarcely a pause for breath so that all the characters he encounters are sketchily drawn, from ill-fated British cavalry officers Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston to elderly French farmer (Niels Arestrup from A Prophet).
No matter, Spielberg comes good on the scene which is the emotional core of Morpurgo’s story when the terrified Joey careers through the trenches across no man’s land into barbed wire and prompts a brief truce. It’s an old-fashioned film – Spielberg deliberately gives it that look with lots of artificial lighting – which perhaps lacks any great spark of invention but it is sure to give pleasure to all ages.
You have to admire Michael Fassbender for what he is prepared to go through at the behest of director Steve McQueen. After enduring starvation as Bobby Sands in Hunger, he is prepared to strip himself bare for Shame (Cert 18) and simulates an orgy of undignified sexual gluttony.
He is Brandon, a thirtysomething New Yorker whose obsession with sex controls his existence, living alone in a swish but sterile apartment and holding down a smart office job while feeding his addiction to porn, masturbation, hookers and eyeing women on the subway as potential pick-ups.
The sudden arrival of his wayward and needy sister (Carey Mulligan) disrupts his solitary routine and her desperation to find some sort of affection moves him to increasing anger and drives him into a downward spiral of degradation.
The plot is as preposterous as it is predictable but presumably we are not meant to take it literally but see it as a symbol of today’s urban existence of dehumanising technological comforts and all-consuming greed. Be that as it may, spending 99 minutes with such exclusively unappealing company (work colleague Nicole Beharie offers the one link with normality) is not for everyone’s taste.
The performances of Fassbender and Mulligan are extraordinary but beyond that one wonders what all the fuss is about the second film by Turner prize-winning artist turned film director McQueen.
Played out in the style of a conspiracy thriller, Margin Call (Cert 15) is a fact-based drama of 24 hours in a Wall Street investment firm in 2008 just before the sub-prime crash.
It all kicks off when a young analyst (Zachary Quinto) discovers figures indicating the company is on the brink of financial meltdown because the assets it has been trading are worthless.
He alerts senior colleague Paul Bettany who calls in his department boss, played by Kevin Spacey. They in turn are quizzed by senior executives Simon Baker and Demi Moore until ‘God’ himself – suave mogul Jeremy Irons – is helicoptered in to deal with the crisis.
Cleverly, writer-director JC Chandor makes you feel that at each stage you move up the food chain you are meeting the real villain of the piece. But in the end you see that everyone is implicated as a decision is made to take action that has moral as well as financial consequences.
You wait in vain for some kind of hero to emerge but the truth is that everyone is trapped in the system.