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Film Review: ‘Dream Horse’ is Irresistible Tale of Plucky Underdogs

True story is delicious antidote to uncertain times

Toni Collette has a lot to learn about horse racing in the based-on-a-true-story underdog tale ‘Dream Horse.’

A cheer-worthy celebration of persistence, community, and team spirit against all odds, revolving around a most unlikely underdog (make that underhorse) hero named Dream Alliance, Dream Horse couldn’t come at a better time. That it’s a true story makes it an even more delicious antidote to these cynical, divisive and uncertain times.

From humble beginnings in a small village in Wales, rendered lovingly onscreen by Welsh director Euros Lyn, the story of Dream Alliance became a matter of fierce Welsh pride. Scripted by Neil McKay, the movie stars Toni Collette as the unassuming barmaid who rallies her friends and neighbors to chip in to buy and train a racehorse to compete on the professional circuit. Alert moviegoers may recognize the story from an excellent 2012 documentary on the subject, Dark Horse, but it’s worth telling again in this lightly fictionalized format to reach a broader audience.

Collette stars as Jan Vokes, a checkout clerk in a grocery store by day who serves drinks at the local pub at night, while her genial but unmotivated hubby Brian (Owen Teale) pretty much watches the telly all day. Married early as teenagers when Jan became pregnant, their middle-aged life has become drab now that their kids are out of the nest—although they have pet geese, ducks, dogs and a goat to look after.

Jan regrets how complacent they’ve become since the bygone days when they were raising prize-winning show dogs and racing pigeons together. But one night when she overhears pub customer Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), a tax accountant, talking about a racehorse he once invested in, she gets a crazy idea. She persuades her working-class neighbors to form a “syndicate,” chipping in 10 pounds a week to buy a racehorse, enlisting Howard as her advisor. (Even though he warns her, “It’s mainly wealthy professional men who go in for this kind of thing.”)

Doing research online, Jan buys a broodmare, and Brian dutifully builds another enclosure onto their backyard shed. After a trip to the stud farm, the mare produces a gawky chestnut foal that steals Jan’s heart at first sight. At a meeting of the syndicate—around the pool table at the pub—they vote on the name Dream Alliance (because, as Jan points out, “We’re all in this together.”)

Eventually, there’s enough in their coffers to audition Dream for prospective trainer Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell). Their first meeting is not auspicious; having never run on a track before, Dream is facing the wrong way as the jockey tries to nudge him toward the starting line. But once he gets the hang of it, Dream impresses Hobbs with his “spirit and character,” and the trainer agrees to take him into his fold and groom him to race.

Dream is late getting off the block in his first competitive race, but from dead last, he powers on to finish fourth—to the delight of the syndicate, who have chartered a bus to attend. The expected montage of newspaper headlines charts Dream’s progress, scoring ever higher in his next few races until he finally racks up his first win, heading toward his fateful rendezvous with the prestigious Welsh Grand National.

Alongside Dream’s career, the filmmakers focus on the human relationships he transforms. Jan delivers her most heartfelt, self-defining speeches to her horse. Brian is more reticent around people than the driven Jan, but he has a natural affinity for animals, sidling up gently, cheek to muzzle, to calm down the horses. Dream gives them both a future to fight for. Howard walks a tightrope between a pledge to his own late father and a promise to his apprehensive wife not to risk their life savings.

The unexpected bumps on Dream’s path to glory are handled here to nail-biting effect. And while the classism of the elite racing society for the upstart syndicate is portrayed as relatively benign, the spectacle of plucky, working-class folk daring to compete in the “sport of kings” is its own irresistible reward.

DREAM HORSE

 (*** out of four)

With Toni Collette, Damian Lewis and Owen Teale. Written by  Neil McKay. Directed by Euros Lyn. A Bleecker Street release. Rated PG. 113 minutes.

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