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Film Review: Through Occasionally Clunky Terrain, “Dream Horse” Still Inspires

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 20th, 2021

Film poster: “Dream Horse”

Dream Horse (Euros Lyn, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Sometimes real life is better than any movie. Back in 2009, a horse of humble origin, Dream Alliance, maintained by a syndicate of 23 people residing in and around the town of Blackwood in south Wales, United Kingdom, won the Coral Welsh Grand National race after returning from a serious injury sustained the previous year. His collective of working-class owners, led by Janet Vokes, had dared imagine they could compete against breeders of far greater repute and resources. Told in the 2015 documentary Dark Horse, the story offers all the inspiration a feel-good film can deliver. Now comes a dramatized version, Dream Horse, from director Euros Lyn (The Library Suicides), which does the narrative sufficient justice without adding much of anything new.

Toni Collette (Hereditary), always worth watching, plays Janet (or “Jan,” as she is called). A past breeder of pigeons and whippets, she works multiple jobs, one of which is at a bar, where she overhears a local accountant, Howard (Damian Lewis, Bobby Axelrod on Showtime’s Billions), talk to his drinking buddies about a prior syndicate of his. This plants the idea in Jan’s ever-active mind to research horses to see if she can do the same thing, herself. Or at least partly by herself. She’s smart enough to know she needs help, and drafts an initially reluctant Howard to assist, along with neighbors and acquaintances. Everyone agrees to contribute the same periodic financial amount, and to share equally in the profits, should there ever be any. All they need now is a mare, and a stallion to breed her.

Toni Collette in DREAM HORSE, a Bleecker Street release @Bleecker Street

These opening sequences happen quickly, with just enough backstory to each character to help us understand their motivations. From there, we launch into the hopeful foal’s birth and growth, followed by his training. Given the lack of any pedigree, it’s hard for Jan and Howard to locate a suitable trainer, though since Jan did her homework in terms of which stallion to match to her mare, Dream Alliance does, indeed, show adequate promise to convince the man they want to join them. And on it goes, each hurdle slowly overcome until the only ones remaining are those the horse will have to jump over (for it’s steeplechase races in this part of the world).

Beyond Collette and Lewis, both excellent, the large supporting ensemble shines, as well, especially Owen Teale (Nocturne) as Brian, Jan’s depressed husband. There are enough actual Welsh actors in the mix to lend the movie an air of genuine place, everyone eschewing ostentation (director Lyn is also Welsh). As in the documentary, the class dynamic is front and center, the joy of watching underdogs defeat a system designed to exclude them as vibrant as ever. All of that said, the big emotional beats still end up feeling a little predictable, the emotional swell of the music overselling what is evident without it. Still, as occasionally clumsy as the mise-en-scène may be, the arc of the piece still inspires. This horse has solid dramatic legs.

l-r: Owen Teale, Toni Collette and Damian Lewis in DREAM HORSE, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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