'Dream Horse' resonates with warm sense of humor and heart

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)
From left, Owen Teale, Toni Collette and Damian Lewis star in "Dream Horse." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

What’s in a name? For the plucky Welsh racehorse Dream Alliance, well, a lot. His mighty moniker reflects the big dreams of his unlikely owners, a syndicate of working-class folks from a tiny Welsh coal mining village. Based on a true story, “Dream Horse” depicts the unlikely and amazing tale of Jan Vokes (played here by Toni Collette) who rallies her community to pitch in a few pounds a week and make a go of it in the high-stakes, high-class world of racehorses. In the rousing, inspirational “Dream Horse,” one remarkable colt allows an entire community to find a connection with each other that seems long lost.

The story of Dream Alliance is the subject of the 2015 documentary, “Dark Horse,” by Louise Osmond, and in “Dream Horse,” Welsh director Euros Lyn infuses the tale with a warm sense of humor and heart, thrilling emotional stakes and a deeply felt sense of Welsh pride. The screenplay, by Neil McKay, demonstrates how something as now formulaic as an underdog sports story can still resonate, with charming characters and relatable conflict.

For Jan, life in the village has become rote, mundane. Her children grown, she works in the local food co-op and at the bar. She cares for her aged parents and seems to merely co-exist with her husband Brian (Owen Teale), who is glued to farming shows on the telly.

When she overhears a tax adviser (Damian Lewis) discussing his racing syndicate at the pub, she gets the itch for competition, long dormant since her days racing pigeons. So first she convinces her husband to buy a thoroughbred mare, Rewbell, and then she convinces the butcher, the banker, the bartender, the barfly and more of her neighbors to join her syndicate for 10 pounds a week, with the intent to breed a champion racehorse.

Even with the promise of cash prizes, there’s a less than 1% chance of winning, so the group votes to do it for the “hwyl,” a Welsh word meaning “emotional motivation,” or “fun,” something of which they could all use a bit more.

Toni Collette stars in "Dream Horse." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

But Dream Alliance is more than just a good time, he also proves to be a surprise phenom on the track. So the syndicate alights from the sprawling green felt of the pub pool table to the sprawling green fields of the racetrack. Lyn captures the posh atmosphere and excitement of the environment, to which this group brings a sense of rough-hewn enthusiasm.

Based on real people, it’s not hard to populate the syndicate with a motley crew of funny, quirky folks, but McKay pays careful attention to each one; every character and their desires are carefully outlined if not thoroughly sketched. There’s enough good humor and just a dash of vinegar to temper the tone from becoming too treacly or sentimental, though the triumphant moments are incredibly effective and moving.

Lyn’s not-so-secret weapon is his leading lady, Toni Collette. With her ever-expressive face, simply watching her spectate nervously is a thrill in and of itself, as she cycles effortlessly through every emotion watching Dream Alliance do what he was born to do: race. As he streaks around the track, there’s an outside chance he might win. But for his owners, winning is just a cherry on top. Dream Alliance gives them a sense of purpose, companionship and community. He’s more than an escape from drudgery, a weekend pursuit. Wrapped up in that horse is a profound sense of hope and a second chance to experience all that life has to offer.

‘DREAM HORSE’

3 stars (out of 4)

Cast: Toni Collette, Owen Teale, Damian Lewis, Joanna Page, Sian Phillips

Directed by Euros Lyn

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Rated: PG (for language and thematic elements)