by Michael O’Sullivan | Washington Post | May 19, 2021
Based on a true story, “Dream Horse” is a straightforward and unfussy feel-good drama about a group of ordinary people from a small Welsh town who decide to inject a little zest (and the risk of financial ruin) into their humdrum lives by breeding a racehorse, although none of them has the slightest experience in the field. Improbably, the stallion — named Dream Alliance for the motley assortment of naive and starry-eyed nobodies who form a syndicate to financially support, raise and race him — manages to do better than anyone could have imagined.
Anyone, that is, who has never seen a horse-racing movie before. (For the factual backstory, watch the charming documentary “Dark Horse.”)
The film’s protagonists, including the town drunk, the butcher and a lonely old lady — all of whom are colorful but clueless, with the exception of a savvy Cardiff accountant (Damian Lewis) who once owned and raced a thoroughbred — are not in it for the money but for something called the hwyl. It’s a Welsh concept (approximately pronounced “hoil”) that roughly translates to: a reason to get up in the morning.
The syndicate is led by a bartender named Jan, played by Toni Collette, who brings a bit of the hwyl herself to the otherwise somewhat staid proceedings and predictable ups and downs of the narrative. When they finally find a trainer (Nicholas Farrell) willing to take on the horse, he notes that he can see something in the animal, who, though rough around the edges, has spirit and character — “like his owner.”
Collette certainly brings spirit and character to this project, elevating the film, although “Dream” is not her best or most interesting work. There are lots and lots of reaction shots of Jan watching her horse run: She’s concerned one minute, elated the next, then worried, breathless, on the edge of her seat, distraught, ecstatic, etc.
But there’s not much heavy lifting for an actor of her stature, save for one scene in which her character is called upon to deliver an inspirational speech to the syndicate partners after the horse is injured.
No spoilers here, but “Dream Horse” follows a route as preordained as the steeplechase ovals its title character runs, around and around and around. Everything about the film is just a tad on the nose, including the at-times-mawkish music, which features the song “Fire in My Heart” by the Welsh band Super Furry Animals. A more chipper ditty? “Delilah,” the 1968 song made famous by Tom Jones (also Welsh), which is sung, in a rollicking, slightly drunken version by the cast of the film — accompanied by their real-life counterparts — in a pub over the film’s closing credits.
So worth it.
It’s a silly but fitting ending to the movie, which is as much about Welsh pride as it is a love story about a horse. Its message is really about finding a reason to get up in the morning — and where’s the harm in that?
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