DREAM HORSE is the heartwarming and uplifting film that is sets out to be. Unpretentious as the working class folks that this based-on-actual-events story celebrates, it tells the classic underdog story of the race horse that evokes sneers from professionals and aristocrats before he puts them all in their places. If it sounds formulaic, it is, but elevated by Toni Collette’s passionate performance, and a director Euros Lyn, who understands how to film a horse race for maximum suspense. Hence making this a thoroughly enjoyable exercise as well as nice character study of people ground down by life suddenly looking forward to the future.
Collette is Jan, a woman entering middle-age with a life that can most charitably be described as routine. Her children have left home, she works a mind-numbing job at the local co-op, and her husband, Brian (Owen Teale) pays more attention to farming shows on television than to her. One night, while working her second job at the local social club, she spies a new face in the crowd. He’s Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), a chartered accountant with, for her, a glamorous history as part-owner of a racehorse. He may be arrogant, but his presence is more than the novelty so lacking in her life. It starts her thinking. With a past in dog shows and pigeon breeding, she begins to investigate breeding racehorses. Before Brian can quite figure out what is happening, they are the owners of a thoroughbred brood mare who will live in their backyard, and Jan is putting together a syndicate to breed her to a suitable thoroughbred stallion. Little does Jan realize that Howard, too, is in his own sort of doldrums with a career helping very wealthy people find the maximum number of tax loopholes. So, after scoffing at Jan, he signs on, too, along with 18 other colorful characters from their small Welsh village.
It proceeds as you would expect, with Collette finding not just Jan’s heart, but that of the film as well. The way she bonds with all the animals in the film, including waterfowl that live in boxes in Jan’s house, has real emotional depth. As does not just the desperation Jan feels at the beginning of the film, but the desperation to cling to hope as the story unfolds despite the inevitable setbacks. Not that Collette is warm and fuzzy. This is a tough woman, flinty even, which gives Jan layers of texture and complexity. It also makes her irresistibly empathetic. Orbiting her are the supporting players including Siân Phillips as the lady who drowns her loneliness in store-bought chocolate cakes, and Karl Johnson as the village inebriate with no filter between brain and mouth.
It would be remiss not to mention the horse who plays Dream Alliance, the foal owned by the syndicate. A creature with more expressive eyes I have not seen, and whether it’s clever editing, stunt-doubles, CGI, or just the horse itself, there is no doubt as it snorts, canters, sprints, or looks soulfully into Collette’s adoring eyes that this is an animal of rare spirit and a will to win.
The question of whether or not Dream Alliance has what it takes to beat the less than one-percent odds against him having a shot at greatness is settled early on. That’s when the human drama, entwined with the fortunes of the horse, come to the fore. Jan and Howard become perhaps too invested in their investment as a creature and not just the monetary instrument that the other 18 see. Jan has to contend with a distant father still not over one of her youthful indiscretions, while Howard has to contend with breaking his promise to his wife to never again become part of a syndicate after the disastrous results of his last foray.
The emotional highs and lows have the right immediacy, and the lack of syrup in what is ultimately a very sentimental story gives a fresh and welcome cast to the proceedings. You don’t have to be a fan of the sport of kings to cheer for, or be cheered by, DREAM HORSE.