Neil McKay

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