'Dark Horse': Sundance Review
Director Louise Osmond's crowd-pleasing documentary recounts how an unlikely racehorse brought together an entire former mining village in Wales
In British director Louise Osmond's documentary Dark Horse, there's a shot of an elderly, working-class lady with curlers in her hair sitting under a hair dryer in a low-rent barber shop while reading a copy of Racing Post. It's no doubt meant to inject a moment of gentle comedy into the film as well as suggest how pretty much all inhabitants of a sleepy former mining village in Wales, where the film is set, suddenly became hooked on the rather elitist sport that is horse racing.
The throwaway image perfectly indicates both what the film is about in a nutshell and how the locally owned racehorse Dream Alliance turned people from all walks of life into fans of the sport since they literally had a horse in the race. This in turn bodes well for the appeal of the film that documents this story, which was very well received at its Sundance premiere and should interest festivals and distributors looking for crowd-pleasing nonfiction fare.
Dream Alliance was born as the result of the actions of Jan Vokes, a middle-aged barmaid from Cefn Fforest, South Wales, who'd bred birds and dogs and one day in early 2000 got talking to a local tax adviser, Howard Davies, who had a passion for racehorses. Jan's husband, nicknamed Daisy, also had a thing for animals, and together they came up with the crazy plan to breed a racehorse themselves. However, the money needed to pay for the necessary mare, the stallion's sperm and the care and training of their foal was way more than these lower-class workers could come up with, so Vokes decided to sell "shares" in the horse to 30 pubgoers for £10 per week, with the group of owners dubbed "the syndicate."
Through talking-head interviews, illustrative inserts ranging from paintings to archival photos and video footage and some scenes that look like soft-focus reenactments, Osmond illustrates how Vokes, Davies and wife Angela and the other owners rallied around their unusual common project despite the fact that, even after spending several thousand pounds, the racing history of the foal's parentage wasn't particularly impressive, so there was no guarantee their horse would even be fast. However, seen the title of the film, it should come as no surprise that their baby, named Dream Alliance after a democratic vote down at the pub, grew up to become a horse with potential, even if one of her trainers explains that, in its early stages, the horse advanced because of the sheer willpower of a scrappy and unruly but competitive animal rather than anything akin to good genes or years of training.
As the animal enters its first races, the entire community of the depressed former coal town came together to see how their horse would do. Surprisingly, it managed to finish some races in fourth and third between 2004 and 2005 before hitting a rough patch in the following two years. Then the miracle occurs. It wins a very important race: the Perth Cup.
What makes the film so much fun to watch is not only its clear underdog narrative — the story's only halfway told by 2007, with several more surprising twists in store — but also that the no-nonsense commoners are such pleasant company, recounting how things went in candid, soundbite-ready and often amusing ways. Because it happened to these very deserving people who are clearly fishes out of water in the racing milieu — an element blatantly but often pleasantly milked for comedy — is a big part of the appeal. And since its ending is not quite as straightforward as one raised on Hollywood movies might think or hope for helps ground the incredible proceedings in a sense of reality.
Some of the archival footage can't quite handle big-screen projection but seen the virtuosity of the film's assembly, courtesy of cutter Joby Gee, and its inherent feel-good qualities, audiences are unlikely to care.
Production companies: DSP, World's End Pictures, BFI, Film4, Channel 4
Director: Louise Osmond
Producer: Judith Dawson
Executive producers: Julian Ware, Lizzie Francke, Anna Higgs, Anna Miralis, Adam Partridge, Emily Dalton
Director of photography: Benjamin Kracun
Editor: Joby Gee
Music: Anne Nikitin
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
No rating, 85 minutes