Toni Collette congratulates Dream Alliance on another big win in "Dream Horse."

First comes the documentary with a remarkable inspirational story, then comes the inferior fiction version of it headlined by A-list stars. James Marsh’s Oscar-winning Man on Wire became the less inspired The Walk and Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol turned into Welcome to Marwen. Robert Zemeckis did both of the fiction films, but we can’t just blame him. I’m afraid the British now have their own contribution to the genre, as Louise Osmond’s handsome and absorbing 2015 documentary Dark Horse has now become Dream Horse, which is just too much like other sports dramas.

The story picks up in the late 1990s, when Jan Vokes (Toni Collette) hits a midlife crisis working as a supermarket clerk and barmaid in Blackwood, Wales. One night, she overhears a new customer, a Cardiff tax accountant named Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), regale the others at the bar about his days as part of a syndicate owning a racehorse. She tells her unemployed, considerably older husband Brian (Owen Teale), “I need something to look forward to when I get up in the morning,” and spends £300 on a broodmare, well aware that this is not the end of the expenses. To pay for steep stud fees, she and Howard gather a consortium of 30 investors from their town, each kicking in £10 a week for two years. The foal is born, chestnut with a white blaze, and named Dream Alliance. The horse is genetically blessed with speed, and soon he’s competing against horses owned by English lords and Arab princes.

The problem might just be that Dream Alliance’s career fits so neatly into the template of sports movies. The horse did indeed have a habit of starting races slowly and then making late charges near the finish line, and he did overcome a life-threatening injury to win his biggest race. Having said this, does the movie have to feel so boilerplate? In the hands of Euros Lyn (a first-time movie director who comes over from British TV), no dramatic development feels surprising. Whenever we need a rousing speech, Jan steps forward with one. Her nagging at Brian for giving up on his life pays off exactly at the moment you expect it to. The other shareholders come off like the same colorful eccentrics you’ve seen in a thousand cozy British comedies. Dark Horse captures something of the outrage felt among the racing establishment that these yokels from a mining town dared to put a horse up against their thoroughbreds, but that’s largely missing here.


If you’re looking for a shot of Welsh pride, Katherine Jenkins portrays herself and sings a spine-tingling rendition of “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.” (Wales has a long history of supplying the world with great opera singers.) The other takeaway is watching Collette and Lewis blend in with the milieu and a cast full of Welsh actors. I sense that Collette could slot in anywhere and look perfectly at home. At a time when the real-life world of horse racing is mired in scandal, Dream Horse is a look at how a bunch of outsiders crashed the sport of kings. That should have landed better than it does.

Dream Horse
Starring Toni Collette and Damian Lewis. Directed by Euros Lyn. Written by Neil McKay. Rated PG.