Synopsis: A Welsh cleaner and bartender persuades her neighbors and friends to contribute financially to breed and rear a racehorse. The group’s unlikely investment plan pays off as the horse rises through the ranks and puts them in a race for the national championship.
Stars: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Joanna Page, Nicholas Farrell, Siân Phillips, Karl Johnson
Director: Euros Lyn
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: When settling down to watch this quaint, PG-rated bit of molasses, I suddenly felt the urge to seek out a skein of yarn and start to knit a very large, comfy sweater. There’s something about the tiny Welsh village setting, gentle plot mechanics, and, if not vibrantly colorful, then slightly washed-out characters which just calls for a knit one, pearl two pattern to keep your hands busy. It will at least keep your mind from drifting too far away from Dream Horse which feels like a movie that’s been around the track a few times and is almost ready to be put out to pasture. However, like many final laps, this one rallies at the most important moments and reminds you why the structure has worked so well time after time.
I remember seeing ads for Dream Horse last year before all the release dates shifted and I give credit to its US distributor Bleecker Street for holding on to it a full year after it was originally due to come out. They could have moved it to a streaming release like many of their higher profile releases (Supernova comes to mind) but instead they’ve let it out of the gate right as vaccinated audiences are being told they can head back to the theater (and follow the mask mandates). While many viewers will be clamoring for the rock ‘em sock ‘em blockbuster titles, there are a good number who will see this one as a quieter bridge to ease their way into a picture larger than their TV with a soundsystem that goes just a little higher than the one they have in their living rooms. That it works as a pure audience pleaser at its best moments doesn’t hurt either.
Ah, but does it ever take its time getting there! I honestly wasn’t sure Dream Horse would ever move from a trot to a full gallop during its first hour which establishes the plan made by supermarket cashier Jan Vokes (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) to form a racehorse syndicate among a group of villagers in Cefn Fforest, a former mining town in South Wales. Her vision is to buy a mare and pair it with a thoroughbred racing stallion. The foal the two horses would produce would be “owned” by the group who would front the costs for all of the expenses it cost to raise the horse. When the horse grew into its potential, any profits from championships won would be divided among the neighbors.
The script from Neil McKay tends to move quickly over some of the finer details within this initial set-up and doesn’t bother filling in some other gaps along the way (Jan has two children who we never see or hear much of which have left her and husband Brian as empty nesters) and this can be frustrating to a viewer wanting to get more character bang for their buck. What McKay and director Euros Lyn do like to spend time with is in the mundanity of syndicate meetings that follow the typical trajectory of Jan having to convince those initially hesitant to come onboard only to then almost be ousted from her own group that suddenly feels they know better.
Often in these sporting films the “sport” winds up being the least interesting thing on screen but in Dream Horse it’s the opposite. Just as I was thinking the film would be a disappointing misfire, albeit a well-performed and well-intentioned one, Lyn and cinematographer Erik Wilson (Paddington 2) stage the first of several races that will raise your blood pressure far more than you’d expect. Add in Benjamin Woodgates (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) score which is equal parts rousing and relentless and it creates a feeling like you’re right there cheering from the sidelines. It creates a dramatically different sensation than the rest of the film, one that invests in emotions almost by accident.
Although the actress is able to disappear into most any working-class role with ease, it’s not quite the performance from Collette I think is in her wheelhouse. I just didn’t connect with her connection to the horse, only later on when you see how the horse represents something much more than we originally think does it begin to make sense. During the film’s laudable closing credits (done with gusto in a music hall style sing along) we see some of the real people involved, making one appreciate how well Owen Teale (Tolkien) transformed into the rough and rumpled teddy bear husband of Jan…down to the set of teeth that look assembled from the Tooth Fairy’s junk drawer. There’s perhaps one too many leads fighting for attention, meaning Damian Lewis (Run This Town) gets overshadowed (unintentionally) by Teale and a few of the more memorable residents of Cefn Fforest.
I’d be lying if I said the final twenty minutes of the movie didn’t aid in almost entirely erasing that first stodgy hour, so while it doesn’t totally wipe the slate clean, Dream Horse crosses the finish line in a well-earned position. It will at least help others, like me, finish up some knitting projects that went by the wayside if they watch it at home.