Review: Dream Horse is pitch perfect escapism for these troubled times.
If ever there was a film that would canter straight into the hearts of cinema audiences it’s this one, providing the sort of escape we all need after life in the lockdown doldrums. Based on one of those true stories that sounds as if someone had to have made it up Dream Horse follows the story of valleys’ couple Jan (Toni Collette) and Brian (Owen Teale) who persuade the local community to form a syndicate to own a racehorse. And of course in real life the horse called Dream Alliance proved to be no nag but rather a surefire winner, much to the delight of those who’d invested their tenner a week subscriptions to pay for the horse and its hay and a trainer into the bargain.
Jan’s evolving passion for racing is in part ignited by Howard (spiritedly played by Damian Lewis) a local tax avoidance adviser whose father’s dream of being a jockey was never realised and who almost lost everything the last time to dabbled with the horses. His excitement at the races is palpable and when the horse races for the climactic finish Howard is ecstatic to the point of embolism. For Jan horse-owning allows her to escape from the humdrum mundanity of life behind the supermarket till in a one-horse town that hasn’t even got a horse, even though wild ponies frequent the high street with its shut down shops.
Jan meanwhile is too licked by life and diffident to have dreams, even, having abandoned them when she was seventeen. Toni Collette plays her with great control and huge care, as if dandling her hopes in her hands just as Jan once used to hold her winning racing pigeons. Owning the horse validates Jan, makes her believe in herself and acquire some small modicum of hope and when it begins to win against aristocrat owned thoroughbreds it’s a triumph for the working class over privilege and old money. For husband Brian, looking after the animal reminds him of how he wanted to be a farmer, but that was many moons ago before redundancy and arthritis turned him into a sort of permanently hibernating creature, sat each day in front of daytime S4C. Teale plays Brian with deft nuance, affection and the gentle warmth of a Dimplex heater.
There’s a sterling supporting cast, not least a venerable cameo from Siân Phillips as Maureen who parks her addiction to Tunnock’s Tea Cakes while she excitedly fills her racing calendar, tries on hats and dreams of meeting Clare Baldwin off the telly Other colourful syndicate members include Steffan Rhodri as the naysaying barman Gerwyn and Anthony O’Donnell, in full scene-stealing mode as the bibulous old soak Maldwyn, who comes alive with can in hand, or, most memorably, when holding a karaoke mic to belt out ‘Delilah.’
Euros Lyn, whose films credits include The Library Suicides and a great slew of stylish TV work from Happy Valley through Broadchurch to Torchwood directs it with gentleness, tenderness and restraint, so that the electricity pyloned landscape of Blaenavon and its ribboned terraces of houses are allowed to step forward as an extra, big character. There are neat little visual gags such as the pair of graffitos on a closed-up shopfront which read ‘It Can’t Be That Bad’ because ‘The Pigeons Keep Coming Back’ while some shots, such as brief flurry of starlings weave in bright local texture.
Lyn deftly weaves all this together into a delightful cavalcade, one set piece after another, from the first meeting of the syndicate around the green baize of the billiards table through Dream’s early triumphs at Chepstow and Aintree to the awful moment when it looks as if the horse might have to be put down because of a torn tendon, only to thankfully be repaired by stem cell technology which then allows the fine animal to gallop into greater glory. With a soundtrack by the likes of the Manics, the Super Furry Animals and Euros Childs it’s a joyfully Welsh paean to valleys life, its character and characters. The great homecoming after Dream’s biggest success finds the Llareggub Brass Band accompanying a huge street party where everyone sings and we find Maldwyn, high stepping it out in his underpants.
For me one of the film’s highlights is a mini-bus singalong where the entire syndicate belts out the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Design for Life’ with word-perfect gusto. As a cinematic confection Dream Horse is oftimes a mix of schmaltz with saccharine with extra schmaltz to boot, but its warm heart is always in the right place and it is pitch perfect escapism for these troubled times. Just one note of advice. Take Kleenex, and maybe an extra packet just in case.