Cefn Fforest of South Wales has seen better days. Storefronts are boarded up, and the residents shuffle between jobs that provide no purpose, no sense of meaning. This used to be a mining village—emphasis on used to be. And it feels like everyone in Cefn Fforest used to be something, too. Brian (Owen Teale) used to be engaged in the world around him. Now he spends his days in front of the television. His wife, Jan (Toni Collette), used to race championship pigeons. Now she boards ducks in her kitchen. And Howard Davies (Damian Lewis) used to belong to a syndicate that owned a racehorse. Then he lost almost everything. Now he sits in the pub, recounting to anyone who will listen how glorious it was to own a horse. A horse, Jan thinks, as she pulls pints, now that’s an idea.
Written by Neil McKay and directed by Euros Lyn, Dream Horse is the dramatic retelling of a true story, one that was captured six years ago in the documentary Dark Horse. Both are about a small Welsh town that formed a syndicate to breed and race a horse competitively. They named him Dream Alliance. It was a long shot by a mile, and it paid off.
But money is not the issue at play in Dream Horse, though it crops up as a plot point a couple of times. Community and a sense of purpose are at stake, and when the chips are down, it’s up to Jan to convince the others that Dream Alliance is an emblem, not a commodity. In this belief, she does not waver. Brian soon joins her, as does Howard and the rest of the syndicate members—20 in all. Even the town drunk (Karl Johnson) is a believer.
That might make Dream Horse sound familiar. It is but in a charming, rousing way. Running just shy of two hours, Dream Horse—much like the horse on screen—takes a while to get up to speed. Lyn spends some time setting the stage: the process of finding the mare, tracking down a thoroughbred stud, finding a trainer (Nicholas Farrell), and so on.
Then comes Dream Alliance’s first big race, and the horse is a dud. He lags in the back, he doesn’t seem interested in running, and the camera cranes behind him and the other horses. Then the angle shifts to a closer, more dynamic shot of Dream Alliance digging in. Benjamin Woodgates’ score is summoned out of silence. A close-up of Jan watching in the stands: A look of shock on her face, then a smile. A tight shot of Dream Alliance’s eye. Then a wide shot as he begins to gain on the string. We’re off.
It’s a tried and true tactic, and it works every time. McKay and Lyn employ many of these moments throughout Dream Horse, but none of them feel forced, and the result is something light, fun, and enjoyable. So was Dark Horse, if my notes are to be believed. I saw that movie at the Boulder International Film Festival in 2016 but have absolutely no recollection of the movie. I rated it favorably, but there ends the memory. Will Dream Horse suffer the same fate? I’ll have to wait another five years to find out. Maybe by then, I will be reviewing the documentary about the making of this movie.
Dream Horse (2020)
Directed by Euros Lyn
Written by Neil McKay
Produced by Katherine Butler, Tracy O’Riordan
Starring: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Nicholas Farrell, Siân Phillips, Karl Johnson
Bleecker Street Films, Rated PG, Running time 113 minutes, Opens May 21, 2021