The noble sport of kings – horse racing – has produced many feelgood and inspirational dramas about champion horses and human-interest stories. We have had films about champions like Seabiscuit and Secretariat as well as our own champion Phar Lap. And there have been films like The Cup which depicted both Media Puzzle’s extraordinary win in the 2003 Melbourne Cup and the personal journey of champion jockey Damien Oliver. And recently we had Ride Like A Girl, which told the story of Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. Now add to this list Dream Horse, a feelgood drama from Wales about Dream Alliance, an unlikely champion racehorse that won Wales’s most prestigious race.
Dream Alliance’s story was previously told in the award winning 2015 documentary Dark Horse. This dramatization though beefs up the story for dramatic effect, and the uplifting story deals with themes of hope, resilience, community spirt, living your dream, class.
The film is set in the small Welsh town of Cefn Fforest, a former mining town that has fallen on hard times. With the mines closed there is massive unemployment and many shops have closed and the community itself seems lost. We meet Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), who works two jobs to make ends meet. By day she works in the local supermarket and at night she works in the bar of the local club. Jan used to be a breeder of champion racing pigeons. On a whim after hearing a customer in the bar talk about his experiences in a racing syndicate, Jan decides to try her hand at raising a thoroughbred. She is supported by her toothless and unemployed husband Brian (Owen Teale), lovingly known as Daisy.
She buys a cheap, worn out mare that no one wanted from a nearby allotment and has it impregnated at a stud farm. She raises the foal on her small property in town before handing it over to one of the region’s top trainers. Jan also convinces many members of the local community to chip in money to become part of a syndicate to own and race the horse. For Jan though it is never about the money, it was more about adding some excitement to her rather dull life. Amongst the syndicate is Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), a frustrated and bored tax accountant who has previously been burned financially by his involvement in another horse racing syndicate.
They name Jan’s horse Dream Alliance. The horse slowly rises through the ranks, and despite some setbacks, eventually went on to win the Welsh Grand National, one of the most prestigious races in the country. The horse’s success on the track helped bring the community together and restored some pride and spirit as this working-class syndicate managed to shake up the stuffy and conservative racing establishment.
This crowd pleasing feelgood film has been written by Neil McKay, who has extensive experience writing for television. McKay has crammed in plenty of dramatics that pad out the running time, with Howard’s gambling addiction, Jan having to tend to her aged and ailing parents, and Dream suffering a fall and a serious injury that could end its career.
Euros Lyn, a veteran of television series like Doctor Who and Torchwood, directs. He follows the usual tropes of the inspirational underdog sporting drama. But Lyn and his crew don’t paint a rosy picture of this economically depressed are of Wales, but the film gives us a strong sense of place. There are some spectacular racing sequences, nicely shot by cinematographer Erik Wilson (Paddington 2). The score from Benjamin Woodgates is sentimental and a tad manipulative.
The film is set in Wales, and at times some accents are so thick you can almost carve them, and it takes a little time to get used to the rhythms and cadences of the language.
Collette (Knives Out) brings strength and steely determination to her performance as Jan and grounds the film. Lewis (Homeland) brings a softer and more vulnerable edge to his portrayal of Howard. The ensemble cast and their oddball characters bring plenty of warmth and humour to the material. In particular, Karl Johnson brings a touch of quirky humour to his role as Kerby, the town alcoholic. And Teale (Game of Thrones) steals scenes with his wonderful performance as the gruff, but supportive Brian. And over the end credits we get a cast singalong in which we see the real Jan, Brian and Howard alongside the actors who portray them on screen.
Dream Horse is a genuine crowd-pleaser and a winner.
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film