The based-on-a-true-story “Dream Horse,” about a Welsh bartender who turns unlikely race horse breeder, is a feel-good movie that’s a little too heavy on the “feel-good” to really do the trick.
But as with all long shots that pay off, “Dream Horse” has its hard-to-deny charms. While it deviates little from the conventions of the “Billy Elliot”/”The Full Monty” formula, Euros Lyn’s film also doesn’t stray from a dependable course of underdog triumph, midlife renewal and community spirit.
The performances by Toni Collette, as the determined Jan Vokes, and Owen Teale, as her curmudgeonly but dedicated husband with a mouth half full of teeth, go a long way to enlivening it. So does a sense of Welsh pride. Outside “How Green Was My Valley” and Anthony Hopkins’ recent awards acceptance speeches, the richly rugged, pastoral land on the western shores of Great Britain seldom attracts the spotlight like it does here. It’s in these two things — the Vokes’ relationship and the movie’s Welsh heart — that “Dream Horse” finishes ahead.
It’s based on Louise Osmond’s 2015 documentary “Dark Horse,” a film that had the same crowd-pleasing effect but, by its nature, was predicated more on the authentic idiosyncrasies of its characters, and had more a sense of surprise in the quixotic scheme.
When we meet Jan in Lyn’s film, she has slumped into a staid empty-nester life with her husband Brian, who likes to go by “Daisy.” Their kids are grown and gone (and oddly never even heard from in “Dream Horse”). Aside from bartending, she glumly works as a cashier at a grocery store.
But when Jan overhears a tax accountant at the pub (Damian Lewis) talking about the thrill he got in part-owning a race horse (an investment that nearly ruined him and his family), she gets an idea. Jan has no history with horses but she’s raised whippets and pigeons before, and she soon digs into issues of “Horse & Hound” and other resources. She finds an ill-tempered mare and buys her for 350 quid.
It’s quickly apparent that Jan isn’t motivated by money or prestige but simply by the joy of having something to do, an animal to care for and a new race to run. Her zeal inspires those around her, including the dozen or two others from around their small former-mining village — a butcher, a drunkard, a widow — who join in a syndicate, tossing in money to help pay the fee to breed the mare with a successful racehorse and train the foal that comes from it. They first meet beneath the quarter-operated lights of a pub pool table, and in not too long they’re merrily riding together in a bus on the way to the track, with little reason to expect to win but plenty of songs to sing along the way.
“If the circus is coming to town, I might as well have a front-row seat,” says one.
They vote on the horse’s name, but, like most decisions, it’s really Jan’s call. They name it Dream Alliance. In the rarified racing world, they make a motley crew but “Dream Horse” goes more for sincerity than comedy. Even the races pass by without much rousing drama. Despite all the potential local color (Tom Jones’ “Delilah” does make an appearance, as do tunes by the Super Furry Animals and the Manic Street Preachers), there’s still a blandness to the film.
But just as Jan seemingly wills all the good fortune that comes their way, Collette keeps “Dream Horse” at a steady gallop, and Teale makes a terrific companion. Her quest leads others to break from their humdrum lives. It’s a little like if “Fight Club” was friendlier, Welsh and equestrian.
“Dream Horse,” a Bleecker Street release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for language and thematic elements. Running time: 113 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
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