May 21, 2022

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Dream Horse’ review: Toni Collette powers racing drama

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

What’s in a name? For the plucky Welsh racehorse Dream Alliance, well, a lot. His mighty moniker reflects the big dreams of his unlikely owners, a syndicate of working-class folks from a tiny Welsh coal-mining village. Based on a true story, “Dream Horse” depicts the unlikely and amazing tale of Jan Vokes (played here by Toni Collette), who rallies her community to pitch in a few pounds a week and make a go of it in the high-stakes, high-class world of racehorses. In this rousing, inspirational film, one remarkable colt allows a group of people to regain a long lost connection with one another.

Welsh director Euros Lyn infuses the story of Dream Alliance, also the subject of the 2015 documentary “Dark Horse,” by Louise Osmond, with a warm sense of humor and heart, thrilling emotional stakes, and a deeply felt sense of local pride. The screenplay, by Neil McKay, demonstrates how something as formulaic as an underdog sports story can still resonate, with charming characters and relatable conflict.

For Jan, life in the village has become rote. Her children grown, she works in the local food co-op and a pub. She cares for her aged parents and seems to merely coexist with her husband, Brian (Owen Teale), who is glued to farming shows on the telly. When she overhears a tax advisor (Damian Lewis) discussing his racing syndicate, she gets the itch for competition, long dormant since her days racing pigeons. First, she convinces her husband to buy a thoroughbred mare, Rewbell, and then she convinces the butcher, the banker, the bartender, the barfly and more of her neighbors to join her syndicate for 10 pounds a week, with the intention of breeding a champion racehorse. Even with the promise of cash prizes, there’s a less than 1% chance of winning, so the group votes to do it for the “hwyl,” a Welsh word meaning “emotional motivation,” or “fun,” something of which they could all use a bit more.

But Dream Alliance is more than just a good time; he proves to be a surprise phenom on the track. So the syndicate alights from the sprawling green felt of the pub pool table to the sprawling green fields of the racetrack. Lyn captures the posh atmosphere and excitement of the environment, to which this group brings a sense of roughhewn enthusiasm.

Based on real people, it’s not hard to populate the syndicate with a motley crew of funny, quirky characters, but McKay pays careful attention to each one; their desires are carefully outlined, if not thoroughly sketched. There’s enough good humor and just a dash of vinegar to temper the tone from becoming too treacly or sentimental, though the triumphant moments are incredibly moving.

Lyn’s not-so-secret weapon is his leading lady, Toni Collette. Simply watching her ever-expressive face spectate nervously is a thrill as she cycles effortlessly through every emotion watching Dream Alliance do what he was born to do: race. As he streaks around the track, there’s an outside chance he might win. But for his owners, winning is just a cherry on top. Dream Alliance gives them a sense of purpose, companionship and community. He’s more than an escape from drudgery or a weekend pursuit. Wrapped up in that horse is a profound sense of hope, and a second chance to experience all that life has to offer.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Dream Horse’

Rated: PG, for language and thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Starts May 21 in general release where theaters are open; June 11 on VOD