The Cup: Film Review

A pedestrian retelling of a soaring moment in Australian horse racing history.

Aussie director Simon Wincer, a veteran of horse films, tackles the true story a 2002 race that earned an enduring place in the nation’s heart

SYDNEY — Rooting for the underdog is a national sport in Australia and when a big chestnut named Media Puzzle stepped into the winner’s circle at the famed Melbourne Cup in 2002, it guaranteed a grief-stricken jockey, his feisty ride and an interloping Irish trainer an enduring place in the nation’s heart.  The family drama The Cup revisits this popular win in a workmanlike fashion. Gently rousing enough in the home stretch to appeal to a sizeable domestic audience, its overall lack of dramatic fire hinders its ability to go the distance internationally.

Simon Wincer is a veteran of horse films, having directed Phar Lap and The Young Black Stallion, as well as executive producing The Man from Snowy River. Hesaddles up again for a classic triumph-over-adversity story, lassoing the same feel-good factor that recently propelled Red Dog to its spot as the eighth biggest Australian film of all time.

Champion jockey Damien Oliver’s inspirational ride to victory just days after his brother Jason died following a race fall was one of the more stirring moments in the rich history of a contest that has been dubbed “the race that stops a nation.”

Wincer, who co-wrote The Cup with American journalist Eric O’Keefe, has chosen his subject well but nearly extinguishes its light with pedestrian dialogue and some surprisingly clumsy storytelling.

Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) towers above the local cast as the wily Irish trainer Dermot Weld who intones early on that “with the right jockey, Media Puzzle could win the Melbourne Cup.” The ending of this true-life tale is never in doubt, but this lazy use of sound bites to flag upcoming events makes much of The Cup feel like it’s just going through the motions.

Stephen Curry (best known for a comic role in The Castle) lost a lot of weight to play jockey Damien Oliver and he does a fine job of looking miserable when Jason, played by Daniel MacPherson, dies and undecided during some protracted soul-searching before the big race.

Tom Burlinson, who, in 1983, played a young strapper in Wincer’s Phar Lap, makes a welcome return, and the film features a cameo from the late Aussie veteran Bill Hunter. However, soap star Jodi Gordon, as Damien’s wife, and singer-turned-TV-actor Colleen Hewitt, as the boys’ mother, seem out of their league.

Racing sequences abound, and they are excitingly shot, although there is a heavy reliance on behind-the-scenes filler material such as media commentary and race preamble. An ungainly subplot that ties in the Bali bombings, which shocked neighboring Australia less than a month before the race, and the heroism of a Melbourne football player is merely confusing.

The production looks polished enough, but Bruce Rowland’s score verges on caricature during scenes shot in Ireland (panpipes!) and the Middle East.

Opened: Australia, October 13

Production companies: Ingenious Broadcasting, Myriad Pictures, Silver Lion Films

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Curry, Daniel MacPherson, Jodi Gordon, Tom Burlinson

Director: Simon Wincer

Screenwriters: Eric O’Keefe, Simon Wincer
Producers: Jan Bladier, David Lee, Simon Wincer

Executive producers: Lance Hool, Kirk D’Amico, Joel Pearlman, Greg Sitch, Peter de Rauch, James M. Vernon

Director of photography: David Burr

Production designer: Lisette Thomas
Costume designer: Julie Middleton

Music: Bruce Rowland

Editor: David Pulbrook

Sales: Myriad Pictures

No rating, 106 minutes