“Dream Horse” – “Can’t be that bad. The pigeons keep coming back.”
Jan Vokes (Toni Collette) walks by the aforementioned message – purposely painted on a closed florist shop – when walking home with a couple of plastic grocery bags in hand. Economic hard times have hit her little Welsh community, as high-dollar corporations haven’t yet discovered this village that charmingly sits like a dollop on the bank of a rolling green knoll assembly, a classic example of the country’s landscape.
It’s not a surprise that director Euros Lyn captured Jan at this moment – while filming in Blaenavon, Wales – because she’s striding uphill, not both ways, but it feels like it. She and her husband Brian (Owen Teale) struggle to make ends meet. Jan works two jobs – at a local supermarket and a neighborhood pub – while Brian spends his days watching television. He’s a pleasant sort but believes that his best days are long gone and isn’t shy about asking Jan for a refreshment just after planting himself in his favorite chair.
He frequently asks, “What’s with tea, Love?”
Jan will make his beverage straight away, but she burns for a more purposeful life now that they are empty nesters.
She hopes to find it in the form of a gorgeous, regal colt named Dream Alliance.
We do too.
“Dream Horse” is a lump-in-your-throat, put-a-smile-on-your-face, stand-up-and-cheer, and sometimes hold-on-for-dear-life underdog movie, one based on the Vokes’ and Dream Alliance’s true story. Yes, we’ve seen this type of film play out in all forms and walks of life, but Lyn’s picture finds righteous, authentic beats, led by Collette’s approachable, relatable performance, some flat-out exciting horse races, and featuring Wales as the backdrop.
Regrettably, this critic tends to overlook Wales when thinking about the UK, as England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland first come to mind. However, there’s no reason to skip this seaside nation – about the size of New Jersey with a population of 3.1 million – especially from a film point of view.
Anthony Hopkins accepted his 2021 Best Actor Oscar – for “The Father” (2020) – from his home in Wales. His “The Two Popes” co-star Jonathan Pryce is from The Land of Castles, and so are Richard Burton, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Sheen, and Collette’s co-star Teale.
“Pride” (2014) – a true-story feature about London-based gay activists supporting striking Welsh miners – is the most recent stand-out film with a Wales-based tale that I can recall.
Well, add “Dream Horse” to the list. No, it won’t win a Best Picture Oscar, but it’s a lovely time at the movies.
It’s about ordinary folks attempting to stake their claim in the game of life. Jan jump-starts this aspiration by rolling the dice but also supplying a gameboard and inviting all the players. Not too long ago, she enjoyed breeding and raising pigeons, so why not elevate the stakes to horses, or in this case, one? Of course, the horse racing business falls well outside the Vokes’ budget, so they form a syndicate. Fourteen additional townsfolk chip in every week for Dream Alliance’s stable and training expenditures.
No, Lyn and screenwriter Neil McKay don’t burn too many calories into each investor’s backstories; save a couple, including Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), an accountant who daydreams about the track rather than tracking down tax loopholes for his wealthy clients. Sure, it would be wonderful to learn everyone’s personal yarns, but this is a 107-minute feature, not a television series. Ah, just know that they are a colorful bunch who scrape up enough spare quid together each week to grant the finest for their young, four-legged boy. For the most part, this enthusiastic lot see green, not necessarily from cold, hard cash, but the lush, emerald track.
In fact, the new owners aptly named Dream Alliance. During the contests, several characters cheer on their beloved hero.
“Come on, Dream!”
“Let’s go, Dream!”
After absorbing one or two shouts of on-screen encouragement, it becomes clear that this proper noun also doubles as a verb. Dream’s supporters seem to declare these earnest, pure moments as theirs too, and it’s infectious, at least to this movie spectator. Lyn grants us a front-row seat to the heated contests as his camera takes a first-person – err, first-horse – perspective. He throws us in the middle of Dream’s Hurdle races, which carry a legit sense of danger. These 2-minute matches have us biting our nails, pumping our fists, and silently screaming, “Dream!”
Maybe not so silently.
Collette – who is grand in everything – stands front and center and within every tiny space in “Dream Horse”. She completely sells Jan’s challenges, love for Dream Alliance, and all other emotions across the spectrum. We feel them too…during every uphill step and thrilling downhill gallop.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer Credits: Bleecker Street