According to amateur graffiti emblazoned on the side of an abandoned building, the former Welsh mining town of Cefn Fforest has at least one positive attribute: “It can’t be that bad, even the pigeons are coming back.”
This fact is of little consolation to the financially strapped community, many of whom hardly make ends meet even while working multiple jobs and carefully rationing every spare pence for much-needed beer funds. Jan Vokes (Toni Collette) is one of these people, working by day as a cashier at a co-op before clocking in for her night shift pouring pints at the local dive. There isn’t much else to brighten her days outside of work: Her husband Brian (Owen Teale) is much more interested in watching alpaca castrations on TV than humoring his wife with polite conversation; Jan’s children have long flown the nest and her small menagerie of geese, goats and a very big wolfhound do little to fill the human void; the daily motions involved in taking care of her aging parents cloud any memories of familial harmony that may have once existed.
A healthy dose of hwyl—the Welsh term that describes a sudden and overwhelming zest for life—is injected into the very soul of the community when Jan corrals a modest-sized group of locals to set aside a substantial ten pounds each per week in order to fund a collective effort to breed a racehorse. With what seems like nothing more than sheer luck and gumption, the group’s horse—named Dream Alliance—begins gradually winning tournaments and prize money.
Inspired by the nearly decade-long journey from Dream Alliance’s conception to his winning the 2009 Coral Welsh Grand National, Dream Horse manages to keep its ripped-from-the-headlines premise both thrilling and charming. There exists the pitfall of generic narrative beats inherent of any feel-good crowd pleaser, however what the film lacks in creative structure it regains tenfold in moments of genuine excitement and cheer. Despite the audience likely remembering the international coverage of the horse’s unlikely win, the urge to bite fingernails and exclaim in excitement is undeniably hard to suppress.
“He’s got spirit, character…just like his owners,” remarks racehorse trainer Phillip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell) before deciding to take the dark horse under his guidance.
Director Euros Lyn is particularly successful when it comes to conveying the palpable spirit of delight that exudes from the story—whether it be in the form of lucky horseshoe-patterned socks, charter bus sing-alongs or in several shots of Dream Alliance snarfing sugar cubes. Lyn’s decision to make room for these whimsical details is apt considering the 2015 documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance already detailed the events of the film in a similarly feel-good fashion. In this sense, Dream Horse’s heartwarming little flourishes feel distinctive and appropriate.
What truly propels the film to a level of objective enjoyment is the acting, particularly by Collette and Teale, whose relationship is conveyed as a nuanced combination of sincere devotion and platonic stagnation. Of course, the eclectic characters whose weekly dues compose the Alliance are an adorable bunch, in part due to the fact that such an exciting opportunity has presented itself in many of their twilight years. Even the horse playing Dream Alliance seems to have chemistry with its handlers—and by proxy Collette—with the creature’s unique personality being surprisingly discernable.
The characterization of Wales itself is also quite tangible, specifically the emotional highs and lows of people being tethered to landscapes and locales for which they have long lost their pride. Lyn’s framing of Dream Alliance as not only a financial and emotional boon to the townspeople who collectively own him, but also a representation of restored Welsh dignity, is easy to get swept up in. As the film goes on and Dream Alliance continues to perform spectacularly, the Welsh language and flag seem to share centerstage with the protagonists, culminating in a town-wide celebration when the cohort of owners arrive from the Grand National, the red Welsh Dragon dominating every adornable surface.
A propensity for conventional cinematic formulas aside, Dream Horse thrives as a pleasing drama that keeps the story compelling and showcases talented actors in refreshingly wholesome roles. Just when it seems as if the film can’t possibly get any more jubilant, the real-life people depicted in the film show up as the credits roll to sway excitedly and sing karaoke next to their cinematic counterparts, celebrating the circumstances that brought them all to this point of convergence.
Director: Euros Lyn
Writer: Neil McKay
Stars: Toni Collette, Owen Teale, Damian Lewis, Joanna Page, Nicholas Farrell, Siân Phillips, Karl Johnson, Peter Davison,
Release Date: May 21, 2021 (Bleecker Street); June 11, 2021 (VOD)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.