It was documentary time at JDIFF, as myself and the better half went down to the Lighthouse to check out this British offering. It was her pick actually, out of a desire to see something positive and uplifting, not that I was complaining. I lack any real interest in the sport of horse racing, despite my father’s obsession, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate both a good sports movie, and a good underdog story. I caught a screen of Dark Horse at the Jameson International Film Festival.
A barmaid in a small Welsh mining town decides to try and execute an unlikely ambition: to fundraise enough money from the local community to breed and train a racehorse. Eventually named “Dream Alliance” the horse, raised in an allotment and scraping for everything it gets, shocks the racing world when he gets entered into events – and starts winning.
There is something very charming about how Dark Horse presents itself. When it comes to sports films, the prime maxim I always hold to is always that the best examples aren’t actually about a sport at all, they just use sport as a point to position a much more wide ranging story around. In the last two years, 2013’s Rush, about motor racing, has shown a story about opposing drives to win, motivation and the important of rivalry as a pusher to greatness, while last year’s Next Goal Wins, nominally about association football, was really about individual self-respect and the search for nationalist feeling for an entity that was barely a nation.
So, what is the story within the story for Dark Horse? It’s one of a poor, down-on-its-luck Welsh village, punished by a humdrum mining existence and the oppressions of the Thatcher years, suddenly deciding that it isn’t going to sit there and take it anymore.
Or at least, it tries to be. There is an attempt, from director Louise Osmond, to craft this sort of grander narrative about Dark Horse, with an established higher class, used to the pomp and ceremony of horseracing, looking down with sneers on the little people trying to bust into their sport, only to be left red-faced when the allotment-raised animal actually wins a few races. But it’s a stretched premise, one that never really managed to entrench itself in my mind. In the end, the syndicate surrounding Dream Alliance is not the entire village, horse racing isn’t nearly the sort of elitist thing that it is made out to be (I mean, it costs to take part, but let’s not pretend it’s just royalty and millionaires anymore), and Dream Alliance, while going far beyond what could possibly have been expected of him, still sort of flounders around for much of his career. The tagline of the film purports it to be an “incredible true story”, but that might be a bit of hyperbole. And the film never really acknowledges the fact that this community initiative provided the capital, but it was professional care and training that made Dream Alliance the winner he became. He grows up on an allotment, but he didn’t stay there.
The upshot is supposed to be the tremendous boost in self-esteem it gives the syndicate members, a diverse cast of characters to be sure: they feature the barmaid who takes (what she considers to be) the demeaning job of a cleaner at a local supermarket to help pay for her obsession, her gap-toothed accent blessed husband, the guy who lost it all on horses before but is back for more punishment, and the older guy who wants to bring his own cans to the track bar and won’t have it any other way.
It’s a sort of a cute assortment of people, but you still don’t really feel the message that Osmond is trying to send out as well as maybe he wants to. In the case of Jan Vokes, the barmaid, sure, you can definitely sense the happiness and fulfilment she got from Dream Alliance, but for the rest of them, it just sort of seems more like a bit of fun that went to an unexpected place, as opposed to a crucial journey in altering their self-perception.
Lacking that kind of pivotal element to mark it out, Dark Horse never really threatens to break into the realm of truly great sports movie, or even great horse racing movies. But that is not to say that it is a wasted effort. There are still lots of interesting insights to be gained about horse racing, especially since this is a story that begins right at the roots with the breeding of two horses to make a (hopefully) serviceable and competitive animal. Here you can learn about how the breeding process goes forward, in terms of both practicality and cost, the registration of a new animal, the incredibly pricey nature of its care, training and, eventually, its competition, the nature of how success or failure determines future potential, the travails of injury to equines and how relatively inexperienced people can still make some headway into a sport that costs a great deal of time, money and effort to be dedicated to. In all of that, Dark Horse at least manages to justify itself as a descriptive documentary, telling you about something you might not have known the topic at hand, while not really doing anything on the other side of things, that of investigation, or shining light on an undeveloped or unknown aspect of the topic at hand.
The heartstrings get a liberal tugging in Dark Horse, but in sort of a good way. The security camera footage of Dream Alliance being born and then taking his first steps was a strange delight to behold – a dream literally coming to fruition – as were the underdog elements that came into play later, as the OAP and unemployed denizens of this community scheme suddenly wind up having a horse in the Grand National. You do get a decent understanding of why people get so emotionally invested in the sport of horse racing, and a late scene of a trainer breaking down into tears at the memory of Dream Alliance’s grander moments comes across as endearing rather than sappy.
But Dark Horse has its problems. It’s a little bit too long, that breed (ha!) of documentary that feels obliged to hit 90+ minutes despite a paucity of material to really make that running time something to aim for. Maybe it’s just the “rise and fall and rise and fall” nature of the narrative, where Dark Horse feels like it’s trying hard to make a story that could be told in a very short space of time into something much more epic. The second half especially just sort of trundles along, not without its bits of decent storytelling, but you aren’t sad to see the end credits roll when they do finally appear. Maybe that feeling could have been alleviated with a bit more of flair in the direction, which remains rather unimaginative throughout the course of Dark Horse, with a few rather drab docudrama scenes inserted which sort of take you out of the story more than they pull you in. It’s only with pre-existing footage – like the aforementioned feed of Dream Alliance coming into the world – or the glimpses at the villages more booming industrial past, that you really become engaged with the film visually.
Still, Dark Horse is a very positive, upbeat production, and that is nothing to sniff at. It’s a joyful story, which manages to conjure up a happy ending for its main character despite a variety of obstacles in his career that could have ended (literally) another animal. Sometimes it’s nice to just take in a film where the little guy and the, well, dark horse, actually come through and find some success. It won’t embed itself into the popular consciousness the same way something like Seabiscuit or Champions did, but it is good as an amusing and heart-warming distraction. On those grounds, recommended.
(All images are copyright of Film4).