Everyone loves an underdog. Whether it’s cheering through the Rocky franchise, rooting for The Mighty Ducks, or tearing up during The Pursuit of Happyness – it’s simply human nature to relish seeing the status quo usurped in favour of the little guy. Be they the unlikely, the downtrodden or even the most nonsensical of challengers, we love to see the unexpected happen. Dream Horse bets on this inclination, and while this sweet-natured true story of a racehorse bred in a small Welsh town is entirely unsurprising; it deploys an incredibly likeable cast and the magnetism of Toni Collette to great effect.
Balancing jobs at the local Co-op and pub with caring for her parents and being the dutiful wife to disinterested husband Brian (Owen Teale), Jan (Collette) craves a purpose and identity outside of her usefulness to others. A chance meeting at the pub with amiable accountant and horse racing aficionado, Howard (Damian Lewis), plants the seed; and drawing on her past experience breeding smaller animals, Jan sets her heart on creating a champion stallion. One amusing town hall meeting later, she’s joined by Howard, Brian, and a charismatic assortment of village members to form a syndicate; each with an equal stake in the fate of their wonder horse. That horse comes to be named Dream Alliance. Director Euros Lynn and screenwriter Neil McKay stick to the script as triumphs and setbacks abound exactly where expected, but the pluckiness of the villagers is endlessly endearing, and as they find ways to overcome each hurdle (sorry, not sorry), it’s a journey that feels a joy to accompany them on.
Another predictable element, albeit in the best of ways, is the excellence of Toni Collette. From her star-making role in Muriel’s Wedding, her understated turn as detective Grace Rasmussen in Netflix miniseries Unbelievable, to horror icon as a result of Ari Astor’s critically acclaimed Hereditary – Collette continues to have one of the most versatile resumes in the business. Gifted with inherent believability regardless of if she’s being terrorised by a demon king or willing a stallion towards glory, Collette is unquestionably the film’s draw and emotional anchor. As Dream’s races grow increasingly larger scale and Jan watches from the sidelines, Collette reels us in. Her expressions hovering skittishly between excitement and nervousness, Dream’s success is Jan’s success and Collette is expertly able to make the viewer feel these burgeoning hopes as if they’re our own. This does make the repeated in-race cuts from Dream’s eyes to Jan’s eyes somewhat heavy-handed and unnecessary, but doesn’t detract from the genuine tension felt with each bound Dream makes towards the finish line.
While Jan’s bond with Dream is placed front and center, Dream Horse also explores identity and ambition through both Howard and Brian. Having previously indulged in his passion, but nearly losing everything as a result, Howard languishes in an office, haunted by his father’s similarly unrealised horse racing ambitions. Currently best known for his turn as morally bankrupt tech billionaire Bobby Axelrod in Billions, it’s refreshing to see Damian Lewis on the right side of the law and he’s perfectly serviceable here. The film also benefits from Owen Teale’s subtly layered performance. Initially easy to dismiss as the archetypal layabout spouse, events progress and Brian’s own struggle with his place in the world, as well the perception Jan’s parents hold of him, becomes clear. Brian serves as critical support for Jan, necessary as inevitable complications arise and the practicalities of decision making via group consensus are tested. Teale convincingly portrays a man not just reckoning with his wife wanting more from the life he’s become accustomed to, but with the dull numbness that he himself has retreated into as a means of coping with his own disappointments. An actor of Collette’s calibre needs neither Teale nor Lewis in order to shine, yet Dream Horse is richer for what both men bring to the narrative.
A crowd-pleasing yarn about daring to rise up and escape both mental and economic obstacles, while still retaining pride in your beginnings; Dream Horse banks on our desire to feel good once in a while. There is never a bad time to be reminded that everyone deserves to dream big, and with a relatable story, charming characters and a power player in Toni Collette, this drama is full of heart – and needs little else to be both enjoyable and entertaining. As cinemas reopen and we tentatively start to make our way back to films being a group watch experience, Dream Horse is guaranteed to give a warm feeling worth making your way outside for.
DREAM HORSE in UK Cinemas from 4th June, 2021