Dream Horse is one of those “comfort movies.” It tells a familiar story with such enthusiasm and earnestness that you don't care how closely it adheres to a predictable formula. Forget the odd poster, which makes the film look like a romantic comedy about a woman and a horse. This is the true tale of Dream Alliance, a thoroughbred race horse who competed in the Welsh Grand National. You don't like have to like horse racing to enjoy the film, you just need to enjoy being made to feel good.
Toni Collette plays Jan Vokes, a former trainer of whippets and racing pigeons. Long out of that game, she now works in a pub. One evening, a businessman named Howard Davies (Damian Lewis) comes in. She overhears him talking about a race horse he used to own. Inspired, Jan decides to buy and breed a mare. Her husband Brian (Owen Teale) is skeptical, yet still supportive. A short time later, a foal is born.
Jan doesn't have the money to properly raise and train the horse, so she comes up with a clever plan, convincing a bunch of the town's citizens to create a syndicate. They all chip in money and everyone owns an equal part of the newly-dubbed Dream Alliance. For most of the partners, it's a lark. For Howard, it's a huge gamble, given that his previous entry into this world nearly ruined his life. For Jan, it's a mission, and that leads to intermittent turmoil when it comes to making decisions about the conditions under which the horse will race.
Dream Horse, as you may guess, is about how desires come true. Does Dream Alliance have the right stuff to win? Of course he does. Does he face a potentially career-ending injury at one point? You bet! Does he stage an against-all-odds comeback from that injury? You know the answer to that one. And if you suspected that his success on the track helps some of the characters heal wounds in their personal lives, you'd be 100% correct.
Why does the picture work when it follows a route you can easily anticipate? One reason is that an upbeat story is an upbeat story. The tale of how Jan brought people together to share in an adventure is filled with the stuff feel-good movies are made of. Resisting an old-fashioned story of victory is no easy feat, either, especially when it involves a horse. From The Black Stallion to Seabiscuit to Secretariat, we love stories about four-legged champions and the humans who care for them.
Even more than that, Dream Horse benefits from the outstanding performance from Toni Collette, who makes Jan's passion palpable for the audience. Whereas many actresses might have played the character as an infallible heroine, she doesn't shy away from giving Jan a few edges. The best scenes in the film are the ones where she takes a proprietary attitude toward Dream Alliance, forgetting that everyone else has an equal stake in him. Compelling conflict arises from that. Collette additionally shows how much Jan loves this horse. He represents the sort of excitement that everyday life has been lacking.
Crisply directed by Euros Lyn, Dream Horse doesn't break any new ground. It does, however, dramatize the history of Dream Alliance with humor and heart. That makes it wonderful entertainment, perfect to see when you need a smile or a dose of positivity.
out of four
Dream Horse is rated PG for language and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.