Dream Horse

PG, 113 minutes

4 Stars

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

How do you explain the emergence of a champion? What does it really take to overcome the odds and beat the rest?

Dream Alliance, the horse that won the Welsh Grand National in 2009, did not have a promising start. He began his life on a slag heap allotment in a town in southern Wales. Bred by amateurs and raised through a syndicate of townsfolk, yet he went on to claim first prize at one of the top events in horseracing.

If there is an explanation beyond good genes, good fortune and a competitive spirit, then I don’t know that this sweet, feel-good story with a light comic touch provides it. Yet Dream Horse will surely lifts the spirits.

A documentary was made about the remarkable career of Dream Alliance a short while ago. Dark Horse: the Incredible Story of Dream Alliance was released in 2015, and won the audience award at Sundance. It was a crowd-pleaser of a doco, just like this fiction feature based on the true events.

As Jan Vokes, Toni Collette, in a Welsh accent, is the beating heart of this story. When her idea of raising a racehorse took hold, Jan was working as a barmaid, a cleaner and supermarket cashier, supporting her unemployed, arthritic husband.

She managed to convince hubbie Brian aka Daisy (Owen Teale), to buy a brood mare. Rewbell was going cheap at $300 and the couple were delighted to take her.

another directorial sensibility might have worked harder for laughs at their expense

The mare becomes part of the family, joining an assortment of ducks, geese, goats and a large shaggy dog that is allowed to sleep on the couple’s bed. Their adult children long gone, Jan and Brian maintain a strong interest in raising various birds and animals, something for which they seem to share a vocation.

The eccentricities of the Vokes and many of the other townfolk are revealed without condescension. The director, Welshman Euros Lyn, whose career has been spent mostly in television, is very gentle with Jan and Brian and the rest of the town’s oddball characters. One suspects that another directorial sensibility would have worked harder for laughs at their expense.

The screenplay by Neil McKay, who is also from television, is lively and well written, a tableau of small-town life as well as the story of a champion.

To pursue her dream, Jan needs business advice and teams up with Howard Davies (Damien Lewis of Homeland and Wolf Hall), a local tax accountant. He is a lot less colourful than the rest, but he has a thing for horses too.

Toni Collette with dream horse

Jan and Norman invite expressions of interest from the townsfolk to form a syndicate to help with the costs of getting Rewbell impregnated and her foal raised to race. The proposal is taken up with surprising enthusiasm, despite Howard warning that there’s a one percent chance the horse will ever win a race.

So why do it then? For the high. For the emotional energy and motivation lacking in this little corner of Wales.

Toni Collette is superb in the role of a woman, kind and loyal, who aspires for more from life. Nothing comes undone as a result of her ambition.

Something of her spirit is transferred to Dream Alliance, the ‘allotment horse’ that comes from the back of the field in his first race, to win by a couple of lengths. After several placings in subsequent races, he next wins at Aintree on his way to the big prize.

as Tom Jones gets to sing lustily on the soundtrack, Welsh pride is everywhere

Apart from Collette’s interesting and expressive Jan and the gallery of characters who have pitched in for her horse, there are many moments when the film steps back to take in the beautiful rural locations. The vistas of the soft Welsh countryside, like the views across the valley from different angles and at different times of day, evoke a strong sense of place.

Even Welshman Tom Jones gets to sing lustily on the soundtrack. Welsh pride is everywhere.

Not so sure that those close-ups of Jan eyeballing Dream Alliance work, as though the horse’s drive had to come from his owner. Did the real Jan Vokes do that sort of thing, like a horse whisperer transferring her motivation?  Those scenes were not necessary, but that’s a minor quibble about a crowd-pleaser that feels good from start to finish.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 June 2021