27 April 2015

If Wishes Were Horses: Dark Horse Review

This time of year is usually a bit of a dry period for new movie releases, and nothing had piqued my interest at the cinema for several weeks, but although I have little interest in horse racing, I rather liked the sound of Louise Osmond's new documentary Dark Horse. The film tells the story of a group of friends from a small former mining village in South Wales, led by the barmaid at the working men's club, Jan Vokes, who start a syndicate and breed a racehorse. Somewhat embarrassingly, everything I know about horse racing, I learned from a misspent youth reading Jilly Cooper novels, but that matters little: Dark Horse is an uplifting human story about a group of people who try to bring a little happiness and excitement to their lives and to follow their dreams.

Breeding a champion racehorse is no mean feat, it turns out, and it isn't cheap either, but Jan — whose previous experience is limited to breeding whippets — manages to recruit enough villagers who pay £10 per week into the syndicate to buy a straggly-looking mare with limited racing success and then find a mediocre stallion with whom to mate it. The resulting foal is a handsome but gangly little creature, which they call Dream Alliance. They send him off to a trainer in Minehead — the trainer initially comes off as rather snobby, comparing Dream to a snotty 'comp' kid showing up at Eton, although later in the film you can see how much he has grown to care about the horse.

At first, Dream seems to have the right attitude to be successful but just isn't very fast. "The attraction was: it couldn't be done, initially," the trainer says. However, soon the horse starts to do rather better in the races he runs, placing highly and winning plenty of money for the syndicate and attracting some media attention, as the stakes grow higher and higher. "He was a working class horse about to take on the best — that was the dream," one of the villagers says. And then an unfortunate incident takes place...

Osmond's documentary is a likeable and surprisingly gripping film that isn't so much about a horse, as about what it means to have hope and to believe in something, and about the friendship and togetherness that develops between the villagers. Jan, the sharp, vivacious lead character (well, along with the horse), and her wry husband Brian are wonderfully entertaining, and the 85-minute runtime passes by in a flash.

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