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DARK HORSE

In the vein of Gary Ross’s 2003 “Seabiscuit,” which celebrated the undersized racehorse that lifted American spirits during the Great Depression, comes Louise Osmond’s “Dark Horse,” which chronicles how an unheralded British thoroughbred’s unlikely track success represented the triumph of plucky commoners over the swells in a sport dominated by wealth and social privilege. (Actually there was an American movie that covered similar territory—2014’s “50 to 1,” about Mine That Bird, the unexpected winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. But virtually nobody saw it.) Unlike that movie or “Seabiscuit,” however, this is a documentary, a combination of archival footage, home movies and interviews newly shot by Benjamin Kracun, knitted together by editor Joby Gee to make for a crowd-pleasing tale of winning against all odds that’s practically impossible not to like.

The story has its geographical heart in Caerphilly, a village in South Wales suffering hard economic times after mine closures. Jan Vokes, a barmaid at a local pub who’d previously had experience breeding dogs and pigeons, overheard a customer, Howard Davies, reminiscing about how he’d once owned a racehorse—and lost a bundle in the process, to the distress of his wife Angela. That inspired Jan, who, together with her husband Brian, purchased a mare called Rewbell at a bargain price and bred the horse (again at minimal cost) with a stallion called Bien Bien. In 2001 the foal was born—an event captured on film—and raised in Cefn Fforest outside town. Jan enlisted Davies to serve as a manager, and he formed what came to be known as the Syndicate, a group of local residents who each contributed a nominal sum each week to finance the training of the horse, which they named Dream Alliance. The nest egg was sufficient to put Dream in the care of professional trainer Philip Hobbs, and by 2004 he was ready to race, eventually winning the Perth Gold Cup in 2007.

All this is told through film clips and interviews with the Vokeses, Howard and Angela Davies, Hobbs and undertrainer Johnson White, and investors including Maureen Jones and Tony Kerby. Together they’re a colorful, immensely likable group who recall their astonishment at Dream’s success and their feelings of out-of-placeness among the well-to-do owners who dominated the sport. The unusual circumstances brought the horse and them a good deal of media attention, which only escalated when Dream was seriously injured in a 2008 run-up race to the Grand National that might have ended his life. But the investors, whose emotional attachment was greater than their love of profit, put their winnings into innovative stem-cell surgery that proved successful, leading to his recovery and eventual victory in the 2009 Welsh National and anticipation about how he would fare in the 2010 Grand National.

What transpires from that point has to be left to the reader to find out, but the point of “Dark Horse” isn’t so much the awards and prize money that might follow, but the bond that grew over the years between Dream Alliance the members of the Syndicate, who actually choose the interests of the horse over their own in instance after instance. The love of the animal exhibited by Jan and Brian, as well as Jones and Kerby, is palpable, and even Hobbs, an outsider of sorts, tears up as he recalls working with the horse, who does seem, from the extended footage of him, to be both beautiful and—with a nod in the direction of anthropomorphism—immensely personable.

“Dark Horse” plays on the class consciousness that continues to be a major element of British society, but as recent US history demonstrates, that’s a reality which is hardly alien to the American experience as well, and while “50 to 1” proved incapable of capitalizing on it, Osmond’s effort might just fare better, at least with the arthouse crowd. Of course, eventually it could spawn a dramatization along the lines of “Seabiscuit.” Such a project would be perfect for the revived Ealing Studios—a modernized version of the “little guy” movies like “Passport to Pimlico” and “The Titfield Thunderbolt” that were a specialty of theirs in the forties and fifties. And though critics shouldn’t be too free with casting suggestions, one has to say that if an Ealing “Dream Alliance” should get greenlit, Kerby would just have to be played by Jim Broadbent.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

A Jane Austen adaptation is always welcome—so long as it doesn’t involve zombies—but “Love & Friendship” proves especially engaging. Partially that’s because it represents a work that’s not been done as a film before—the early novella “Lady Susan,” probably written around 1794 but not published until long after the author’s death. (It appears under a title borrowed from another of Austen’s juvenilia.) But mostly it’s because the story of a manipulative eighteenth-century widow arranging good matches for both her daughter and herself has been so winningly, and wittily, brought to the screen by writer-director Whit Stillman and a superbly chosen cast.

Stillman is known for the verbal sophistication of his films, which have been all too rare, but until now they’ve been situated in modern settings. This one proves that his style is perfectly attuned to the late eighteenth century, when the book was written, and especially to imagination of the young Austen. This isn’t a slavish adaptation: though characters frequently compose and read letters, Austen’s epistolary format can’t be simply transferred to the screen, and the book’s unfinished character necessitated imaginative sprucing and finessing. The marvel is that the result is so finely gauged that most viewers will find it difficult, if not impossible, to discern where Austen stops and Stillman begins; some of the best lines are hers, but others are his. Rarely has the fit between author and adapter felt so marvelously right.

Kate Beckinsale is the lady in question, whom we meet as she departs the stately home that she, as an impecunious widow, has lately visited, leaving furious women and despondent men in her wake. Looking for a logical place to stay, she and her devoted attendant make their way to the rural estate of Churchill, to spend time with her accommodating brother Charles (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell), who welcomes Susan with appropriate gentility but is deeply suspicious of her plans, which—in asides that are very helpful to us—she shares with her confidant, the equally duplicitous Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), here transformed into an American with a very perceptive husband (Stephen Fry).

Catherine’s concerns are validated when her shrewd guest casts her net for Catherine’s visiting brother Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), a handsome young fellow who falls for her charms even though his sister—along with his mother (Jemma Redgrave) and father (James Fleet)—express deep concerns about a possible union between them. But their intervention is hardly decisive; what shatters the smooth operation of Lady Susan’s plan is the sudden arrival of her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who’s been expelled from her exclusive boarding school. Everyone seems to take an interest in the lovely, shy, and eminently marriageable Frederica’s future, including Reginald.

That leads her mother to invite to Churchill Stillman’s most inspired addition to the assemblage there, Sir James Martin, alluded to only indirectly in the book but here embodied to hilarious perfection by Tom Bennett. Martin is exquisitely dense and utterly oblivious of his own imbecility; his idiotic remarks leave all around him—save the endlessly tolerant Charles—standing in stupefied silence as he grins shamelessly in their direction. He even transforms some dinner conversation involving a plateful of peas into the most amusing cinematic treatment of that vegetable since James Mason and Christopher Plummer dealt with the subject in “Murder by Decree.”

If Bennett makes an unparalleled stooge, however, he certainly doesn’t steal the movie so long as the deliciously haughty Beckinsale is around. Dropping a stream of icily mordant observations with only the slightest arch of an eyebrow, she dominates the picture while leaving space for the fine supporting cast to shine even in her shadow. Samuel casts an especially fine figure as Reginald, but Edwards isn’t far behind as eager-to-please Charles, and Clark, Sevigny, Greenwell, Fleet and Redgrave all have their moments. The sole regret is that Fry, who seems born to this Austen-Stillman world, gets little more than a cameo.

Shot mostly on Irish locations, “Love and Friendship” (a title borrowed from another of Austen’s early works) was clearly made on a limited budget, but the period detail in the physical production is nevertheless highly satisfying. Anna Rackard’s production design, Louise Mathews’ art direction and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaugh’s costumes are all top-drawer, and Richard von Oosterhout’s cinematography gives appropriate luster to the compositions. The images are beautifully complemented by Benjamin Esdraffo and Mark Suozzo’s subtle score, which makes way for as well-chosen a parade of classical snippets as the one Kubrick selected for “Barry Lyndon.”

“Love & Friendship” will appeal to Austenites, of course, but anyone who appreciates a sophisticated, witty comedy of manners should seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.