I’ve only ever mounted a horse half a dozen times, and on at least four of those occasions I’ve fallen off and done myself a mischief. And an annual flutter on the Melbourne Cup is about the extent of my interest in the four-legged lottery. But I do like a good rags-to-riches horse yarn, where I can marvel at the beauty and awesomeness of these magnificent creatures at a safe distance.
Dream Horse is one such stirring yarn in the tradition that includes, just to name recent-ish racing movies, Ride Like A Girl, Seabiscuit, Secretariat and Phar Lap. Like these it’s based on a true story, in this case that of Janet Vokes, the ordinary woman from an economically depressed Welsh village who used up all her savings to buy a brood mare and then organised a syndicate of local folks to breed and train a successful racehorse which they named Dream Alliance.
I called it a ‘rags-to-riches’ yarn, but ‘against-the-odds’ might be more accurate. If it was fictional, you might dismiss Dream Horse for its conventional and predictable story arc, but because it’s faithful to the facts right down to using real names and settings, we can enjoy it wholeheartedly without worrying about the cliches of the genre.
Its truth is where the strength and charm of the movie lies. Jan (Toni Collette) is a battler. She works at the local co-op as a cleaner and checkout operator by day, and by night as a barmaid at the local pub. In her scant spare time she attends to her needy, ageing parents and keeps house for a husband whose first question when she comes home of a night is ‘what’s for tea?’
It’s at the pub that she overhears a newcomer telling of how he once owned a racehorse that won a big race. He’s Howard Davies, played by Damian Lewis. He’s a tax accountant relegated to a salaried desk job because he’s been too reckless with the gee-gees and has supposedly renounced the pleasures and financial perils of the turf. But Jan is inspired, and recruits him to her cause.
She’s up against it, having to convince not only Howard but also her stuck-in-a-rut hubby and her fellow townspeople that it’s worth risking their meagre means on this long shot. Then there’s the toffy trainer who can’t see how a horse ‘raised on an allotment’ could possibly do any good. This makes for a nice moment when that very description comes to be used as a jubilant endearment by the punters and the sporting media. All the stuff about sticking it up the racing establishment is very satisfying.
The settings are good too – the depressed Welsh mining village with its prominent slag heap, the racecourses that become progressively grander as Dream starts to win. The racing scenes are thrilling: there’s nothing like the thunder of hooves and a horse coming in from behind the field to win.
Sense of community and Welsh pride are strong themes. ‘Once nobody cared about us but now everybody claims to come from here,’ observes Jan as the streets of Cefn Fforest fill with merry tourists drawn to the home of the famous neddy. At one stage there’s a stirring rendition of the Welsh national anthem in its entirety, and it doesn’t feel over the top.
What is over the top is the soppy anthropomorphic stuff. Jan exhorts Dream: ‘This is what you were born to do: be brave, be brilliant’. Oh please. After an inevitable setback – you have to have those – hubby says to Jan: ‘If Dream were here he’d say he wanted to race again’. Oh yeh? So why is he always mucking up and baulking at the start line?
We know this is a story about chasing a dream, but we don’t need all this hokey maundering to make the point. The time might have been better spent telling us something about why Dream was chosen for exclusively steeplechase events. The perils of jumping feature strongly in the story after all. I would also have liked a bit more context about the courses: we go from Newbury to Aintree to Chepstow, but I had to google to find out that Newbury is in Berkshire, Aintree is in Liverpool and is the home of the Grand National and Chepstow – scene of the big race at the end – is the home of the Welsh Grand National.
Why in that order? And why – minor point – don’t the riders’ stories get a look-in?
Toni Collette is excellent and does a flawless Welsh accent as far as I can tell. She is aided by an ensemble of accomplished character actors familiar to us from countless quality British productions. I’ve mentioned Damian Lewis, and you will also recognise Nicholas Farrell as the snooty trainer and Peter Davison (Tristan from All Creatures Great and Small) as rival owner Lord Avery. You’ll also recognise Owen Teale as the hangdog husband. What you’ll recognise him from depends on what you watch. Wikipedia mentions Game of Thrones and Dr Who, but I remember him from Spooks. Sian Phillips, who is Welsh and speaks the language, goes all the way back to I Claudius.
As to whether Dream Alliance wins the big one at the end, no spoilers. Be sure to hang around for the end credits to find out what happened to our dream horse and to see the cast lustily singing a song made famous by a very famous Welshman.