WAR HORSE Drama Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Cert 12A
Last week we had the human characters in Michel Hazanavicius's magnificent The Artist all but eclipsed by the performance of Uggie, a camera-hogging Jack Russell, and this week the animal honours go to the equine performers who contribute to the character of Joey, the War Horse at the heart of Steven Spielberg's latest lavish entertainment.
Michael Morpurgo's children's novel led to a successful stage play involving elaborate puppets, but a film version was always going to be much more straightforward.
Set to an at times overbearing score by John Williams, War Horse tells of how Joey bonds with his young master Albert (Jeremy Irvine) as Albert's parents (Emily Watson and Peter Mullan) face losing their farm at the behest of a mean-hearted landlord (David Thewlis) before Joey saves the day. When the First World War breaks out Albert's father is forced to sell Joey to the army.
If the opening section of the film had been cantering along in territory familiar to fans of Black Beauty, then here's where Spielberg brings his big guns into play. A charge by British cavalry against a German field camp is a breathtaking spectacle, giving us a stark reminder how modern weaponry rendered such tactics a thing of the past.
As Joey passes from British to German hands the story meanders somewhat, but Spielberg still has a couple of stunning set-pieces up his sleeve. A dash by a terrified Joey into a devastated no man's land is gripping, while screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) and Richard Curtis don't hold back when it comes to pushing the audience's emotional buttons.
Overlong and patchy it may be, but War Horse is an entertaining enough addition to the Spielberg canon. HHHII
SHAME Drama Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale. Directed by Steve McQueen. Cert 18
Michael Fassbender's second collaboration with director Steve McQueen has generated talk of Oscar nominations. In the director's debut, Hunger, Fassbender lost an incredible amount of weight to play IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, while here he's an inscrutable figure whose actions hint at enormous emotional turmoil.
Fassbender's character, Brandon, is a sex addict. Whether it be hiring hookers, watching porn or trawling bars for casual pick-ups, Brandon is obsessed yet simultaneously unsatisfied. When he does half-heartedly attempt to form a relationship with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) he's found physically wanting for once.
Brandon's soulless routine is broken with the arrival of his sister, Cissy (Carey Mulligan), a nightclub singer who appears to be more than overloaded with emotional baggage herself. The script, co-written by McQueen and Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), hints at dark secrets in the pair's past but leaves the viewer to guess just what events might have moulded these siblings into the people we see.
At times the film throws us delightful visual surprises -- a wonderful tracking shot as Brandon runs through the nighttime streets of Manhattan and a close-up of Cissy singing a mournful version of New York, New York are the highlights -- but there's generally a flat, cold look to Shame, reflecting perhaps the emptiness of Brandon's existence but equally making the film one to admire at a remove if hardly warm to. HHHII
THE DARKEST HOUR Sci-Fi. Starring Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella. Directed by Chris Gorak. Cert 15A
The latest 3D travesty features a group of photogenic Americans wandering around Moscow in the wake of an alien invasion muttering dreadful dialogue and trying to get the mostly unseen invaders to reveal themselves. Even at 87 minutes long this is an endurance test and to be avoided at all costs. HIIII