Welsh townspeople pool their money to buy and raise a competitive racehorse.
Directed by Euros Lyn
Starring Toni Collette, Damien Lewis, and Owen Teale
Review by Jon Kissel
The root appeal of this story, whether it’s a feature or a documentary, is the fact that a bunch of pensioners and service workers pooled their money together and brought their horse to compete and win against the ancient Welsh gentry. It’s the triumph of community over cash and privilege, however fleeting and insignificant the battle. Lyn isn’t making an eat-the-rich screed, but that dynamic is impossible to ignore when Brian’s toothless grin gets anywhere near a fancy horse-racing crowd. It’s there in horse movies in general because no film can resist giving some animating spirit to the horse itself. Is this an investment vehicle that needs to produce results, or is it a living thing with its own will and its own dignity? Dream Horse is far too romantic to land at any conclusion other than the latter.
As the film so values Dream Alliance and the syndicate of townspeople that supports him, Dream Horse often becomes a watch-through-your-fingers trial of unbearable tension. This style of horse racing requires jumps, and Lyn does an exceptional job of foregrounding the chance of injury and making it into an inevitability. His camera finds the horses as their bodies leave the ground, as they crash through the shrub obstacle, and as they land back on the ground. Every step of that process, repeated several times during a single race, is accompanied by an intake of breath, waiting for the moment when something goes wrong. Lyn gums up his film with false and contrived attempts to build tension, like in scenes where Jan is left to wonder if anyone’s going to show up to her initial meeting when they obviously are or there’s no movie. These instances are made all the more useless by the film’s ability to generate a huge amount of stress in the races themselves, none of which would be possible if the film was unable to create a rooting interest in the town and the horse itself.
Toni Collette has been working for decades and she always elevates her material. One of the more underrated modern actors, Collette adds a lot of nuance to Jan. There’s a beaten-down quality to her that shows up whenever she keeps herself from cheering too loudly for Dream Alliance, but her passion for him always overcomes it and it’s always cathartic to see it happen. She’s got a British quality of composure, but it doesn’t come naturally to her. Collette shows all this, and Lyn knows when he should just leave the camera on her face instead of on the race that she’s watching. She blows away her costar Damien Lewis, playing a syndicate member who connects Jan with horse people and who’s having his own personal crisis of confidence. The film doesn’t have as firm a grasp on his character, and he’s more a source of frustration. Fleshing out the syndicate are longtime theater queens like Sian Phillips and character actors like Karl Johnson, whose gate might be open but whose beast is asleep. Dream Horse does a great job in making its cast feel like a community, no doubt in part through all the singing they do on bus rides to and from horse races. This is all so naturalistic that I wouldn’t be surprised if the cast broke into song on their own to pass the time and Lyn decided to put it in the movie.
Dream Horse has its crutches but Collette is too affecting and the cast is too charming to detract much from it. This is a crowd-pleaser that I’d recommend to anyone, a lovable romp that’s earnest in its intentions to do right by an uplifting story of solidarity amongst humans and across species. B+