Jan Vokes, a cleaner and bartender, recruits her initially reluctant husband Brian and local accountant Howard Davies to help her bring together a syndicate of local people to breed a foal – which they name Dream Alliance.
There is a lot to love about Dream Horse, not least its Tunnocks Teacakes product placement (Americans — think biscuit base, thin layer of strawberry jam, a big dollop of marshmallow and the whole lot encased in milk chocolate all wrapped up in a glorious silver and red shiny wrapper).
This is familiar territory though, even if the strapline — “Bred on an allotment, born to win” — makes it sound like a BBC Films production about giant vegetables starring Jim Broadbent.
Dream Horse is actually the true story of Dream Alliance, the racehorse bred on a Welsh allotment that brought pride back to an economically devastated community while surpassing all racing expectations. The performances are terrific, particularly Toni Collette and Damien Lewis, though even they at times looked pained by some particularly cliched dialogue. “We both know this has always been about something much more than money,” says Howard to Jan, while later she announces “we lost our jobs, out community, even lost our pride!” which is true but makes her sound like a union leader whose speeches have been written by a middle class special adviser. Philip Hobbs, Dream Alliance’s eventual trainer, describes the horse as “rough and ready round the edges” but also has “Spirit. Character. Like his owner”.
Luckily the performances (including those by the horse), heart-swelling story, and racing syndicate member Maureen’s hats outweigh the “charming Britflick” stereotypes.
Jan (Collette) is late-40s, works in the Co-op, keeps a close eye on her elderly parents and misses her two children, who have now flown the nest. She has a history of training and showing animals, and winning, from dogs to pigeons. Since being made redundant her husband Brian (Owen Teale), known as Daisy, drifts through life without ever leaving his sofa. The small Welsh town has been devastated by job losses and there is little spare cash around.
Then Jan spots Howard (Lewis) at the social club. He’s a slightly arrogant and slightly flash tax adviser who has already lost a fortune and nearly lost his wife and home in a horse racing syndicate, but Jan is undeterred and starts planning to breed her own racehorse. Howard is intrigued, and joins in, helping her cajole a group of locals into signing up too. If everyone chips in £10 a week they can cover expenses and training for the resultant foal, named Dream Alliance.
Jan is always the driving force, admitting that Dream Alliance is as much about helping her remember that life can change. She’s hugely driven and often spiky, pushing through decisions as if deep down she doesn’t really think it a syndicate of equals at all but a way for her to drag herself and her village out of the doldrums.
She utterly adores Dream Alliance and almost wills him on during his races, though her scrunched-up expressions have such an evil look to them that at times she looks as if she’s telepathically telling the horse if it doesn’t win it won’t get any dinner. (“Witchcraft,” one of the syndicate jokingly explains her connection to Dream.)
This is classic British comedy-drama, which means many ups and downs along the way, as ordinary people come up first against snooty poshos, whose disdain soon transforms to grudging admiration; then for a short time against each other. There’s the lazy husband, initially coming across like a Welsh Jim Royle; the local jobsworth; the flash git; the moneyed horse trainer who walks away before spotting something special about Dream. To be fair these are all recognisable British types, though rather un-Britishly Dream Alliance starts actually winning things.
I am quite sure I welled up at all the places writer Neil McKay and director Euros Lyn wanted me to: from the foal ultrasound through tragedy to eventual triumph. When Dream Alliance starts overtaking in pretty much every race I wouldn’t have been surprised if the theme from Chariots Of Fire had cranked up. Despite all of this, I was gripped from start to finish, and actually felt less manipulated after some post-watch googling led to me discovering that the film sticks closely to the real story — though the writer knows precisely when to finish for maximum glory. And to top it off there’s a Manic Street Preachers singalong on the syndicate bus.
Everyone looks extremely frumpy, apart from Howard, the horse and Maureen (Siân Phillips), who gets dressed up for every race culminating in a stunning red pillbox hat adorned with what could be either huge flowers or Tunnocks Teacakes.
Gavin And Stacey‘s Joanna Page pops up as Howard’s understandably weary wife Angela, with Fifth Doctor and national treasure Peter Davison appearing very briefly as another racehorse owner. Katherine Jenkins appears as herself; and some attention please for the rider who plays Dream Alliance’s jockey, in the thankfully easy to spot red and white silks. The races are exciting while still getting to the truth of the horse’s initially small local race meets.
Dream Alliance is a beauty. There’s a gorgeous shot of him and the other racehorses trotting through early morning mist, their jockeys in their brightly-coloured silks, on their way to the race.
Outside of those cliches the dialogue is straight talking and realistic, and that’s where the film’s wit comes from. “”First race, he’s bound to be a bit edgy”, reassures Howard as Dream Alliance bounces around while the other horses trot nicely towards the starting line. “Edgy? He’s facing the wrong way!” retorts one of his syndicate mates.
Note: There is no mid credits scene but hang around for the end title cards explaining what happened to the real Dream Alliance, photos of the people behind the characters and a good old Welsh singsong by the cast.
Watch the Dream Horse trailer: