Review by Jane Freebury
It is the season for thoroughbred horses, outlandish hats and a lot of money changing hands and just the right moment for veteran producer and director Simon Wincer to make a splash with a movie about the Melbourne Cup. If anyone was going to do it, it had to be him. He has after all built his career on more movies with horses and with men who spend a lot of time in the saddle than anyone I can think of right now, with Phar Lap, The Lighthorsemen, Quigley Down Under, and various TV work in American westerns.
The Cup is like movies once used to be, a big statement that is proud to be Australian, wearing its heart on its sleeve, taking itself a lot more seriously in these matters than Red Dog.
It tells a decent story, that of the jockey who won the cup in 2002 two weeks after his elder brother died in a race fall. If you remember, it was jockey Damien Oliver, played here by Stephen Curry, who had a magnificent win on Irish horse Media Puzzle and dedicated his success to his brother. The horse also had a challenge of its own to overcome, a broken pelvis the previous year.
Thoroughbred racing is one of the most dangerous sports there is, with more fatalities than sky-diving or boxing, and the film’s terrific racing sequences help to explain why this is, as the camera and sound recordist takes us right up to the surging gallopers and their pounding hooves. The intensity of it when the horses are at full stretch is a far cry from official racing vision in long shot.
The Oliver family story is set against the broad canvas that is the international racing scene, from Europe, to Dubai, to Australia, to the US, and, rather surprisingly, against the events of the 2002 Bali bombing which took place in the same momentous month as Jason’s death. This draws football into the story too, and the link with the local players who lost their lives then. As I said, it’s a broad canvas.
The film does get a little muddled trying to pack in a variety of characters and connections across continents, but suffice to say that Brendan Gleeson, who is currently still packing them to the rafters in The Guard, plays Dermot Weld, a character big enough to hold things together. Weld was trainer for Media Puzzle who allowed the grieving Damien to ride, if he wished.
Last point to make is that this is Bill Hunter’s last movie. He plays Bart Cummings, so he gets to say: “You gotta remember. Anything can happen. It’s the Melbourne Cup.” Onya Bill.
In a capsule: The story of the jockey who won the Melbourne Cup in 2002 shortly after his brother died in a race fall. Told against a panorama of Australian sporting life, this is expansive filmmaking in an old-fashioned way, but enjoyable enough.