Damien Lewis

Dream Horse

09/06/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Yeah, yeah, we’ve seen it all before. A British film about a bunch of working-class people, cast adrift by the closure of whatever industry has kept them going, left to fend for themselves, lost, broke and frightened. Until – hurrah! – they’re saved, thanks to their plucky can-do attitudes and a sense of community… Miners saved by joining a brass band, steelworkers redeemed by stripping, you know how it goes. And yeah, it’s all very inspiring, but somehow it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, because what’s it saying? That our government doesn’t owe us a duty of care; we just need to dig deep enough, try hard enough, find our own way out of the mire? I don’t buy it.

But I really like this film, written by Neil McKay and directed by Euros Lyn. I just do. I’m not really expecting to, but I can’t help myself. My heartstrings are well and truly tugged.

It’s very, very Welsh. And, as a Welsh person who no longer lives in Wales, I find myself filling up as Katherine Jenkins sings Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the crowds at the racecourse joining in, and when the Cefn Fforest locals line the streets, singing Bread of Heaven. There’s quite a lot of singing, actually – which is no bad thing.

The plot is no great shakes. It’s based on the true story of supermarket cashier Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), her unemployed husband, ‘Daisy’ (Owen Teale), and city accountant Howard Davies (Damien Lewis), who make a plan to breed their own racehorse. Jan has experience of breeding greyhounds and pigeons, and Howard has previously owned a racehorse – which was so expensive it nearly cost him both his home and his marriage. But they’re all trapped and fed up, and this plan offers them a glimmer of hope. However, they can’t afford it alone. And so the syndicate is born, and – although only twenty-three people actually commit to stumping up the ten pounds a week required for part-ownership – it seems like the whole village is invested in the group’s success.

First, the Vokes buy an injured mare named Rewbell. Then, they breed her to Bien Bien, a thoroughbred stallion. The resulting foal is Dream Alliance, owned by the syndicate, and trained by Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell). Howard warns the syndicate that they are unlikely to make much money from their horse – that they have to be “in it for the hwyl,” not financial gain. This proves to be wise advice. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Dream Alliance becomes a relative success (because it would be a very different kind of movie if the venture were a flop), but no one makes more than a couple of grand. The hwyl though. The hwyl. That’s life-changing.

There’s such a lot of hope in this film, such a lot of joy. The importance of simple camaraderie, of sharing a goal, of feeling part of something; it’s all writ large here. Kerby (Karl Johnson) is a shambling alcoholic until the syndicate gives him new hope; widow Maureen (the inimitable Siân Phillips) finally has something other than Tunnock’s teacakes (delicious thought they are) to divert her. The whole crew take a minibus to the races and crash into the owners’ bar, claiming their place among the elite with their heads held high. It’s glorious. And there is, genuinely, some real suspense in those final furlongs.

If you’re looking for something to raise your spirits, Dream Horse is it.

Enjoy. Mae’n grêt.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Our Kind of Traitor

ourkindoftraitor-mcgregor-gunpoint

17/05/16

The recent success of the BBC’s The Night Manager has put the work of John Le Carré back into the public eye, but Our Kind of Traitor (terrible title) isn’t likely to enjoy the same levels of success, despite the presence of Ewan McGregor in the lead role.It’s not an awful film, by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a plodding, workmanlike feel to Susanna White’s direction which prevents it from ever really taking flight. And then there’s the plot… oh dear.

McGregor plays Perry Makepeace, a university lecturer, who we first meet on holiday in Morrocco with his barrister partner, Gail Perkins (Naomi Harris). Mind you, they’re not having a lot of fun as they’ve gone there to try and get over Perry’s recent fling with one of his students. One night, on his own in the hotel bar, Perry encounters Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) and recklessly accepts an invitation to go clubbing with him and his pals. Dima, it turns out, is a high-ranking member of the Russian mafia, a money launderer, who is about to sign over millions of dollars of ill-gotten gains to a fellow gangster, ‘The Prince’, who is planning to open a bank in the UK. (Well, he’s a mafioso, he’s surely allowed some hobbies?) Dima is painfully aware that the last person who signed over money to this charmer ended up dead, along with all his family – so he enlists Perry to take a flash drive back to London for him and asks him to it over to MI6. Perry being the thoughtful sort, doesn’t even bother mentioning any of this to Gail. (No wonder their relationship is in trouble!) The first she knows about it is when they’re detained at passport control.

Perry promptly comes to the attention of Hector (Damien Lewis) a spy who (like most Le Carré characters) has his own personal agenda and wants to get even with other MI6 operatives who have done him down in the past. He’s keen to enlist Dima’s help to expose those MPs who have been dealing with the Russians on the quiet – but there’s a problem. His employers are reluctant to sanction such a move and will only allow him three agents.  Almost before you can say ‘that seems highly unlikely’, Hector has recruited Perry and Gail to help his team bring Dima and his family safely to the UK. Whereupon all kinds of adventures ensue in a variety of eye-catching locations…

Whether or not you can accept such a risible idea will greatly influence your ability to enjoy this film. I’m afraid I simply couldn’t. The ensuing chase does manage to kindle the occasional bit of tension, but the ultimate overview – that everyone is basically corrupt and nobody can be trusted, soon becomes a little wearing; furthermore, the notion that MI6 can’t afford to enlist enough operatives to handle such a mission successfully is faintly ridiculous. McGregor gives it a go but looks uncertain of himself all the way through, Harris doesn’t really have much to do except stand around looking worried and even the usually dependable Skarsgard has to shout and bluster his way through the proceedings, in order to generate some momentum.

Oh yes, and like most Le Carré stories, there’s a rather downbeat ending, that does nobody any favours. There will doubtless be plenty of people queuing up to tell me I’m wrong, but if this film has a flavour, to me it’s basic vanilla.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney