Film Review: ‘Dream Horse’: Toni Collette Stars in an Uplifting Sports Film for All Ages

May 22, 2021 Updated: May 28, 2021

PG | 1h 53min | Biography, Comedy, Drama | 21 May 2021 (USA)

Pooling together every possible narrative hook from practically every uplifting movie ever made (but in a good way), “Dream Horse” tells a simple story of an unaffected group of people united in a cause that will tug at the heartstrings of viewers, especially those who have ever had a close connection to an animal—meaning about 99 percent of the entire human population.

Offering further proof that she is one of the most underrated and versatile of all living actresses, Toni Collette stars as Jan Vokes, a Welsh woman deprived of sleep by her snoring husband. She whittles away days as a grocery store cashier and her nights as a bartender at the local watering hole. Bored out of her mind, Jan is looking for a diversion and finds it through checking out the details of becoming a race horse owner.

Both a pragmatist and a romantic, Jan first picks the brain of previous horse-owner Howard Davies (Damian Lewis) and then organizes a group of colorful co-investors. If they chip in a little bit each week for a couple of years, they too can have something to look forward to beyond their mundane day-to-day.

In the hands of a lesser-committed performer, Collette’s character could have been played as rote, phoned-in, or deeply rooted in hokum, but the actress delivers a high degree of warmth, sincerity, vulnerability, and guarded enthusiasm. Jan is instantly empathetic and eminently relatable. Much of the same can be said of Lewis’s Howard.

An actor with Welsh ancestry, Lewis is best known for playing intense characters in Steven Spielberg’s TV miniseries “Band of Brothers,” the TV shows “Life,” “Homeland,” and the current “Billions.” Howard is eons removed from Lewis’s past roles as he reveals previously unseen light-comedy chops and an ability to present a flawed, somewhat insecure, yet likable everyman.

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Toni Collette as Jan Vokes and Owen Teale as Jan’s husband, Brian. (Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street & Topic Studios)

An Instant Equine Classic

The film in both style and tone resembles the many British dramatic comedies from the late 1990s and early 2000s (think “The Full Monty,” “Calendar Girls,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and “Love Actually”). This was a challenge that was not as easy to pull off as it might sound for “Dream Horse” filmmakers.

Instead of a two-hander focusing solely on Jan and Howard, screenwriter Neil McKay includes over two dozen significant speaking roles with distinct personalities and quirks. What could have been a bottleneck of performers battling for dialogue and screen time is instead a tight, well-constructed ensemble piece. The only character that doesn’t work and drifts deep into parody is an elderly male town lush who is fond of disrobing in public.

Based largely on the 2015 documentary “Dark Horse,” “Dream Horse” also follows practically the same narrative trajectory of “Seabiscuit”—another story about a nonfictional horse with less than stellar lineage and given zero chance of ever amounting to anything but still does.

The still-alive gelding Dream Alliance was born in 2001 and came with a lot of attitude and little in the way of promise. Realizing that their best and costliest investment would be in hiring the experienced trainer Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell), the owners started their journey with eyes-wide-open clarity, kept their expectations in check, and looked at their investment as a pricey hobby.

Not exactly known for being a hotbed for top-level horse racing, Wales nonetheless had enough race fans and annual events to make it a first-rate, second-tier competitive collective. The Welsh fans were dedicated and fervent, and once the underdog Dream Alliance began to show promise, he and his owners became highly newsworthy media darlings.

DREAM HORSE
(L–R) Brian (Owen Teale), Nerys (Di Botcher), Gordon (Brian Doherty), Jan (Toni Collette), Howard (Damian Lewis), and Maldwyn (Anthony O’Donnell) living out their dream. (Kerry Brown / Bleecker Street & Topic Studios)

All-Welsh Original Songs and a Haunting Score

The producers were beyond wise in placing longtime episodic TV director Euros Lyn (“Doctor Who”) at the helm. A Welsh native, Lyn makes it a point to include over a dozen original songs covering a multitude of subjects and almost as many genres all performed by Welsh musicians.

Rather than perform the chore of providing mere aural wallpaper, the songs (and the equally outstanding score from composer Benjamin Woodgates) become unseen characters, lifting the production from a standard breezy UK-based (and sports) crowd-pleaser into something far more moving and resonant. A full-length, goose-bump-inducing performance of  “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (the Welsh national anthem) by Katherine Jenkins late in the third act is a rousing and fitting final number.

It’s worth reminding that while “Dark Horse” provides the bulk of the source material for this movie, there are enough differences that would make viewing the documentary first inadvisable. If you plan to watch both, you should see “Dream Horse” first.

In a rare showing of full disclosure, the filmmakers and the studio include a caveat during the closing credits stating, in essence, that the movie is a work of fiction based on real events and not the usual and often misleading “based on a true story.” How utterly honest and refreshing.

‘Dream Horse’
Director: Euros Lyn
Stars: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Nicholas Farrell, Peter Davison
Running Time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Rating: PG
Release Date: May 21; available on demand June 11
Rating: 4 out of 5

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national film industry media outlets and is based in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a regular contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles.