Dream Horse, 2021.
Directed by Euros Lyn.
Starring Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Joanna Page, Karl Johnson, Steffan Rhodri, Anthony O’Donnell, Nicholas Farrell, and Siân Phillips.
Dream Alliance is an unlikely racehorse bred by small-town Welsh bartender Jan Vokes. With no experience, Jan convinces her neighbours to chip in their meager earnings to help raise Dream in the hopes he can compete with the racing elites.
If you look up “crowd pleaser” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find the synopsis for Euros Lyn’s new film Dream Horse. Though doing little to move outside the stable of the middle-brow Brit sports dramedy, Lyn finds a lethal secret weapon in a thoroughly committed Toni Collette. If a tad overlong at 113 minutes, it more-or-less gets to the point in spinning an appealingly lightweight underdog yarn.
Jan Vokes (Collette) is a middle-aged Welsh shop-worker and bartender who desperately craves fulfilment and excitement in her modest life. With the fellow residents of her former mining village, she establishes a syndicate to breed a racehorse, Dream Alliance, who they hope might be able to compete against their more well-to-do rivals.
There’s little denying that Lyn’s film clings eagerly to the inspirational sports film playbook, centered around a colourful cast of locals who field out broadly amusing one-liners and largely convey their backstories through expository dialogue. It speaks to a film that’s generally more efficient than inspired, laying every flicker of emotion on thickly enough for the cheap seats to catch a whiff. But formulas tend to exist because they’re effective, and to that end Dream Horse builds enough charm throughout its runtime to deliver humble satisfaction.
Anyone coming to the film hoping for a deep dive into the particulars of horse racing will inevitably be disappointed, given that Neil McKay’s script largely circumscribes the technical details in favour of frothy character drama. As such the sense of struggle inherent in any long-shot romp feels a little undercooked here, the syndicate’s success proving a touch too easy for a story of this sort.
But the unambitious storytelling is hoisted by two things – a keen sense of place for the focal village, Cefn Fforest, and a spectacular performance from the ever-reliable Toni Collette. If much of the film focuses on the specific quirkiness of the syndicate’s various members, the script at least avoids treating them like podunk cliches – Jan’s aloof layabout husband Brian (Owen Teale) may be missing half his front teeth, but the film doesn’t once make a joke about it.
The village itself exists in the spectre of its past as a mining settlement, and as gorgeous as the natural scenery might be, it’s clear that Cefn Fforest is a depressed locale both economically and spiritually. And so, seeing these unassuming locals taking a hard swing at a sport typically reserved for the posh lot lends it a giddy, fish-out-of-water vibe, all while not-so-subtly thumbing its nose at the rich.
As beautiful and majestic as the film’s equine stars might be, the film belongs less to them than it does Collette, who true to form makes Jan a compassionate portrait of graceful humanity. The actress demonstrates an impressive mastery of the tricky-to-nail Welsh twang, and in turn slinks into the part far more comfortably than you might expect from such a respected A-lister.
Damian Lewis is also a delight as Howard Davies, a frustrated tax advisor who joins the syndicate while desperately attempting to project an image of himself as a wheeler-dealer. Like Collette his accent is spot-on, though given that his paternal grandparents were Welsh that’s surely less surprising. Yet the show is very nearly stolen several times by Welsh actor Owen Teale as Jan’s aforementioned hubby, whose amusingly stoic temperament belies a simmering wisdom.
The character-centric focus does however sometimes overspill into crusty, bloated sub-plotting; Howard is a gambling addict and argues with his wife over taking part in the syndicate, while Jan has elderly, infirm parents to deal with. Ultimately do these “human interest” asides do much to buffet the infinitely more interesting horseracing story? Not remotely – they’re just dramatic padding.
But the observations of the characters’ interior lives do support a wider portrait of people simply struggling to find something that enriches their lives and transports them away from their troubles, win or lose. As such there’s an unexpected yet intriguing tenor of melancholy to the film, which almost threatens to overpower the oddly not-euphoric sports angle.
Perhaps this is in part due to Lyn’s rather anonymous direction; the horseracing scenes aren’t adventurously or creatively shot, and beyond a witty opening gag in which a horse’s breathing cleverly segues into that of Jan’s sleeping husband, the filmmaking is more functional than artful.
Between this and a sentimental musical score from Benjamin Woodgates – one that’s designed to cue your heart to flutter – there is a distinct feeling of engineered contrivance to the film’s feel-good throughline. Nothing else gets close to the genuinely inspired moment where Jan and her pals drunkenly sing along to the Manic Street Preachers’ “A Design for Life” on the coach ride home after a successful day at the races. In fact, Manics fans get two great needle-drops for the price of one; later in the film “This Is the Day” is also invoked to peppy effect.
Dream Horse may be earnest and boilerplate to a fault, but its heart is absolutely in the right place, girded at all times by the strong work of the Collette-led ensemble. Also be sure to stick around through the end credits for, well, something hilariously unexpected.
This over-familiar, built-from-basic-parts underdog sports drama is elevated considerably by a predictably sublime performance from Toni Collette.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.