“Engaging, if overly complacent.”
by Ken Bakely
The first thing to observe about Euros Lyn’s Dream Horse is that it seeks to evoke comfort through directness. It has an overriding desire to turn its real-life basis into an easily digestible feel-good story, and plays directly down the middle. This can make it feel staid, or even worse, uninvolved, but the film also works hard within its own set parameters, commanding dedicated performances and glossy production to create something engaging, if overly complacent. Set in an economically stagnant village in Wales during the 2000s, Neil McKay’s script follows Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), a working-class woman who seeks a new angle on life, lest she fall into a depressive spiral that seems to have consumed her husband, Brian (Owen Teale). She stumbles across an unusual idea in the form of starting a local committee to support a racehorse. So she and a coalition of local townsfolk, most with limited to no knowledge of the sport – the most seasoned is Howard (Damian Lewis), an accountant whose previous failures in the realm have nearly ruined his family’s finances – decide to take a chance on a young foal they name Dream Alliance, each submitting a small sum every week to fund the horse’s training. Though many setbacks await the members of the syndicate and their horse, they quickly realize they may be on the precipice of something great, as their unlikely equine champion heads for the races, and starts doing better than anyone could have expected.
It’s not very meaningful to say that you know what happens next – this is a true story, and you can easily find out – but rather, to say that you know how the movie will go about telling you what happens next. Dream Horse steers close to formula, with the familiar beats of triumph and challenge playing to a tune it does little to modify. I would again stress that this is not necessarily a bad thing – there’s a definitive niche for this movie to fill, and there’s certainly a fine place for meaningful, albeit light, dramas such as these – but when the movie falls deeply into its patterns, it can become something significantly worse: uncurious. When it replaces the genuinely stirring underdog tale at its core with plain, one-dimensional signals of its ideas, it begins to feel like the movie is not sold on its own capacity to thrill and rouse. And when it lacks that driving energy, the film can’t convey that it believes in its own story, and it’s then when it feels the most imperceptive and limp. All of this is to say that within Lyn’s tightly-set guidelines, what’s necessary is not for the movie to break out of its mold, but to show us how it can take this dramatization and make it something vital and lively on its own merits.
When it does, the difference is palpable. We see this through its cast, anchored by robust work from Toni Collette. As Jan, she strives to show the complexities – soaring hope born from deep uncertainty – that drive not only her but many of the others involved in the syndicate. With ailing parents and a resigned husband, and all seemingly indifferent to her newfound passions, there’s a particularly sharp contrast drawn that emphasizes what’s at stake here. Collette delivers a leading performance representative of a roundly gifted ensemble. They carry the material with verve, but if anything, this intensifies the feeling that there should be more to this – a deeper fascination or appreciation for what this story can communicate to audiences. Dream Horse is, on the whole, a smartly appointed and well-executed film: there’s much to admire about it, and on some level it accomplishes much of the job it’s set out to do. But it can’t always reach the richer and more rewarding heights it shows it can achieve. After all, this story’s not really about the horse, but rather the journey of a hardscrabble band of neighbors and their collective efforts to meet their lofty goals. Ideally, the movie’s perspective should use that as the key basis for a comprehensive look at its setting and characters, developing them to create an enveloping result – yet its occasional forays into a more surface-level, obligatory approach temper its potential.