Producers: Katherine Butler and Tracy O’Riordan Director: Euros Lyn Screenplay: Neil McKay Cast: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Alan David, Lynda Baron, Karl Johnson, Steffan Rhodri, Rhys Ap William, Carwyn Glyn, Siàn Phillips, Benji Wild, Anthony O’Donnell, Darren Evans, Di Botcher, Rekha John-Cheriyan, Brian Doherty, Asheq Akhtar, Max Hutchinson, Aneirin Hughes, Nicholas Farrell, Alex Jordan, Joanna Page. Adam Sopp, Raj Paul and Peter Davison Distributor: Bleecker Street
If you were fortunate enough to catch Louise Osmond’s winning 2015 documentary “Dark Horse,” little in Euros Lyn’s version of the tale of the little-heralded stallion Dream Alliance’s unexpected victory in the Welsh National steeplechase championship of 2009 will surprise you. “Dream Horse” does, however, fill the bill as an agreeable, if almost unconscionably manipulative, crowd-pleaser in the Ealing tradition.
Toni Collette stars as Jan Vokes (which rhymes nicely with just plain folks), whose Welsh village, nicely reflected in Daniel Taylor’s production design and Siàn Jenkins’ costumes, has obviously seen better economic days. She’s working two jobs—days as a clerk in a big-box store and nights behind the bar of the local pub—while taking care of her amiable couch-potato husband Brian (Owen Teale) and her elderly mum and dad.
One night while dishing out the ale Jan hears a voluble customer, Howard Davies (Dominic Lewis), regaling his chums with stories of bands of investors who pool their resources to own race horses. Jan, who’s always had a way with animals, decides that sounds like a great idea, and after doing research (cue the first musical montage), arranges to buy a mare called Rewball, enlisting a bunch of locals, including Davies, to contribute to her upkeep and the stud fee to mate her with a thoroughbred. Though Rewball dies while delivering the foal Jan dubs Dream Alliance, the newcomer grows into a strong, speedy though temperamental stallion whose potential sufficiently impresses superstar trainer Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell) that he adds him to his stable.
Neil McKay’s screenplay follows Dream Alliance’s career—from his debut race in 2004 through the 2008 tendon injury that threatened to bring a halt to his streak (happily, the film avoids showing too explicitly the actual collision with a hurdle) and, after experimental stem cell treatment, his return to the track the following year, culminating in the victory at the Welsh National.
Dream Alliance is played by a number of horses, of course, but all are made up to look identical, and the race footage, as shot, occasionally from unexpected angles, by cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson and edited in sprightly fashion by Jamie Pearson, is exciting.
But the emphasis is on the humans, except, curiously, for the jockeys, who are treated as little more than faceless baggage the horse must carry. Collette anchors things admirably, drawing a convincing portrait of an enthusiastic, emotional woman who feels fulfillment in her relationship with the animal—as well as the renewal of her camaraderie with Brian, played gracefully by Teale as a man who finds a new sense of purpose in collaborating with his wife. Lewis is equally good as a man unhappy in his job who chucks it for his real love—and by doing so endangers his marriage to Angela (Joanna Page), who’s previously been burned by his visions of glory.
They’re surrounded by the collection of British eccentrics—the other members of the syndicate—who are the mainstay of this sort of English ensemble comedy-drama. Encapsulating the standard-issue caricature of ordinary folk contrasted with the like of Lord Avery (Peter Davison), the snooty aristocrat who looks condescendingly on these interlopers until their horse starts to beat his, they include the pub owner, a butcher, an officious local pedant and other such figures, but perhaps the most colorful are elderly spinster Maureen (Siàn Phillips), whose initial obsession isn’t horses but tea cakes, and town drunk Kerby (Karl Johnson), whose lovable booziness Lyn turns to whenever he feels the need for a big, easy laugh.
That tendency to focus on Maureen and Kerby—and on Jan’s (that is, Collette’s) oh-so-expressive face as Dream Alliance runs the races, turning from concern to exhilaration as her horse starts slowly and incrementally makes it near the front of the pack—signals that “Dream Horse” is often pretty shameless in manipulating audience reactions. The trait is also clear not only in Benjamin Woodgates’ jaunty score but in the film’s employment of a slew of pop songs, culminating in a group sing-along (the actors being joined by their real counterparts) to Tom Jones’s “Delilah” over the closing credits. The effect is rather like the effort at some Broadway shows to boost applause at curtain calls by encouraging the audience to join in at a reprise of a hit number.
In short, there are moments when the movie tries too hard to be a rousing paean to people (and horses) of humble background. For the most part, though, it’s a pleasant addition to the British tradition of stories about ordinary folks triumphing over classism—a peculiarly English form of fairy tale, perhaps, but one that can still be rather endearing.