By Elias Savada.
Director Euros Lyn, a Welshman himself, creates an affectionate rendering of country life and the subtle idiosyncrasies of the people in this one (race) horse town….”
The true story about thoroughbred racehorse Dream Alliance that was transformed into the rousing documentary Dark Horse back in 2015 has now been crafted into a fictional “based on” version that captures the same quirky spirit and modestly stirring characters that inspired both films. The cast is headed by Toni Collette and Damian Lewis, each often associated with intense roles. While one of her more recent appearances was as the crazed mother in Hereditary (2018), I still remember her titular, Abba-loving performance in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding. For Lewis, the change of pace provided him a world of “naive warmth and generosity of spirit,” away from the fiercely provocative roles he usually embraces, like those as U.S. Marine Nicholas Brody on Homeland and his current engagement as the ruthless hedge fund king Bobby Axelrod on Billions. The Australian actress and London-born actor put on fine, understated (and thankfully understandable for use on the other side of the “pond”) Welsh accents as they blend ever so wonderfully into the enjoyable everyfolk world that populates the film’s familiar, clichéd landscape. Their pleasant departure from their thespian norms just adds to the admiration I have for the film.
So, maybe you don’t follow the sport sub-genre of hurdle jump racing (usually over thatched fences) and are unfamiliar with the what-are-the-odds! events that surround this appealing underdog story. The narrative begins as the 21st century dawns in the small Welsh hamlet of Cefn Fforest, its economy in the crapper and harried housewife Jan Vokes (Collette) working two jobs to make ends meet for herself and her non-working slug of a lovable husband, Brian (Owen Teale), a Santa Claus stand-in with bad teeth. She also cares for her aging parents, as well as a coterie of other non-human critters she collects. The drudgery of her daytime supermarket gig is barely lightened up while serving drinks and drafts of Stella Artois to the locals in a workingmen’s club at night. An animal lover who has raised whippets and award-winning racing pigeons — the proud and kitschy ribbons and trophies offer light praise about their home — Jan moves way out of that lightweight class, mostly on an emotional whim, and buys a second-hand mare, builds a small stall for it on her spit of a garden, and then organizes her friends and neighbors into an unlikely racing syndicate, assisted by Howard Davies (Lewis), an overworked tax advisor who knows a few things about horses and racing.
In the tradition of every local-hero-make-good story, Dream Horse offers a couple dozen of them, a lovable group of townsfolk who each anted up £10 a week to raise the titular chestnut gelding, pay for its boarding and training, and have a busload of fun matching their working class ethos against the disapproving stares of the rich-and-famous breeders and owners. As for Dream Alliance, the horse provides nary a whine as the filmmakers offer up a career marked by spectacular victories, a near-death accident, and an even more remarkable recovery.
Director Euros Lyn, a Welshman himself, creates an affectionate rendering of country life and the subtle idiosyncrasies of the people in this one (race) horse town, as provided in Neil McKay’s fine script. For Lyn, it’s just his third theatrical feature (and the first to gain a wider, crowd-pleasing audience), but he’s done exceptional work for the last two+ decades directing a host of episodes for British television that have been amongst my binge favorites, including Happy Valley, Broadchurch, Torchwood, and His Dark Materials.
The heartbeat that starts this tale is actually the sound of the winner’s hooves as a rousing crowd cheers him on. After a bare glimpse of the race, the introduction to the Vokes begins — with Brian’s heavy snores providing the bottom rung of their dreary mid-life existence. It’s mostly uphill from there. McKay’s screenplay likes to focus on the whimsies of the eccentric supporting players, including Maureen (Siân Phillips) who favors chocolate tea cakes; Nerys (Di Botcher) the straw-hatted butcher; the irascible, beer-loving Kerby (Karl Johnson); and the by-the-numbers Maldwyn (Anthony O’Donnell), who has expressed concerned the foal’s diet may lead to excessive flatulence.
Thankfully, the horse’s eating habits are nothing to worry about. Even if you know about the adventures of the humble steed, Dream Horse gives you more than a few moments of exhilaration and quite a few additional tender ones. How can you not like a film that pleases so well?
For those of you finally venturing out, the film is a theaters-only release here is the U.S. Don’t rush out as the end credits start, as the cast and their real life counterparts provide a rousing karaoke interpretation of Delilah, the 1967 hit from Welsh singer Tom Jones. Let’s go out singing!
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).