You won’t see any breathtaking stretch runs in “Dream Horse,” nor will you encounter any heartbreaking moments when a beautiful creature is injured on the track and might have to be put down. There are no colorful townsfolk, no sequences where everyone gathers around the telly to cheer for the local favorite in the big race, no quietly moving moments between a long-married couple who still love one another, no “Rocky”-like thrills of the underdog pulling off the inconceivable upset.
I’m kidding. Of course, we know from the get-go we’ll be getting all of the aforementioned comfort-viewing moments, and we know our hearts will be warmed by this fictionalized version of an amazing true-life tale of a Welsh bartender with zero experience in the Sport of Kings who breeds a racehorse named Dream Alliance that defies the odds and goes on to win the Welsh Grand National. This story was told in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award-winning documentary “Dark Horse,” and now it’s the basis for one of the most entertaining and lovable films of 2021 — and one of the best horse racing movies since “Seabiscuit.”
This is one of those quirky, funny, endearing, touching and smile-inducing Brit drama/comedies in the tradition of “The Full Monty,” “Calendar Girls,” “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain” and last year’s “Military Wives.” We can see every plot point rounding the turn long before the finish line, but that’s OK, because we’re having a (dare I say it) jolly grand time every step of the way.
Toni Collette is genetically incapable of delivering an uninteresting performance, and she’s playing one of the most likable and empathetic characters in her career in one Jan Vokes, who has been knocked around by life ever since she was a girl but still has her hopes and dreams, even though her daily existence is practically soul-crushing. Living in a gray, drab, financially depressed former mining town in Wales, Jan spends long days working as a cashier at the local supermarket and long nights tending bar at the pub — and then comes home to her benign but mostly indifferent husband Brian (Owen Teale), who suffers from arthritis and never seems to leave his comfy seat in front of the TV set. Jan and Brian both love animals and once raised prize-winning livestock, but these days they’re down to a dog, some geese and a couple of goats.
Until they buy a horse. Well, it’s Jan who buys a brood mare on a whim, with the hopes she’ll give birth to a race-worthy horse — and sure enough, along comes a feisty thoroughbred with some long-shot potential. Jan and Brian can’t afford to care for and train the horse on their own, so they recruit a bunch of local investors, including Howard (Damian Lewis), who actually has some experience in the racing game but nearly lost everything to his gambling habit; Maureen (Sian Phillips), a lonely old widow, and Kerby (Karl Johnson), the obligatory town drunk who’s always good for a laugh even as he’s urging the barkeeps to put the next drink on his tab. It’s their alliance that inspires the name for the horse: Dream Alliance.
Director Euros Lyn finds beauty in the South Wales locales and the glorious bright greens and brown earth tones of the racetracks, and the soundtrack hums with tunes from mostly Welsh-based performers, including the one and only Tom Jones. We’re used to seeing Damian Lewis (who has Welsh roots) playing larger-than-life characters, but he slips comfortably into the role of a dreamer who has had more failures than triumphs in his life and nearly lost his marriage chasing glory. (Joanna Page is wonderful as his wife.) At first Lewis’ Howard comes across as a braggart and a boor, but he softens and becomes someone to root for at the end of the day. “Dream Horse” also takes time to flesh out the love story between Jan and Brian — and it is a love story, even after all these years. There are times when it seems as if Brian is hardly paying attention to Jan, but he would be so lost without her. Corny as it may sound, this is a true Dream Alliance between cast, filmmaker and story.