Does the world really need another inspirational horse-racing movie? From “National Velvet” to “Secretariat,” the against-the-odds tale of equestrian pluck is a staple of cinema.
But who said that love was about need?
“Dark Horse,” a lovable documentary by Louise Osmond, won an audience award for world cinema at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival for its utterly charming look at the unlikely success of Dream Alliance, a racehorse bred by a barmaid in a down-and-out Welsh mining village. What the heck, Janet Vokes figured. She had bred pigeons and whippets. Why not a horse?
Vokes knew she couldn’t do it alone, though, so she wheedled her friends and neighbors into joining her. Twenty-three of them formed a collective, chipping in 10 pounds a week for expenses.
With that money, they bought a mare that had never won a race – and had a habit of throwing riders – along with a stallion that had one attractive quality: a low price tag. Pretty soon there was a foal. He was gangly, but eye-catching, with white markings that looked like socks pulled up to his knees, according to Vokes.
There are ups and downs to the story, which progresses over the course of a decade. You can probably figure out what happens next, even if you didn’t read about it in the papers.
But even knowing – or guessing – the outcome of this tale doesn’t diminish its pleasures. “Dark Horse” isn’t really about horse racing at all – rather, it’s a story of self-described commoners who prove that scrappiness and horse sense are underrated qualities.
The film’s interview subjects, all natural storytellers, bring warmth and comedy to “Dark Horse.” Among the most winning is Vokes, whose coal-delivery man husband Brian’s tattoos and missing teeth shocked some of the upper-crusty horse owners against whom they were competing.
Director Osmond makes do with grainy archival footage, but she gets a bit creative, too, incorporating gorgeous close-ups of sinewy horses and staged reenactments. That last technique sometimes runs the risk of cheesiness, but it works well here.
“Dark Horse” is earnest, sweet and told with sentimentality, featuring shots of horses frolicking in fields set against beautiful string music by Anne Nikitin. Surprisingly, the effect isn’t melodramatic or overbearing, but disarming and endearing.
At times, the documentary’s unhurried pace verges on the slow. Ultimately, though, it is such a feel-good story that it’s best not to rush things.
Three and one-half stars. Rated PG. Contains horses in peril and strong language. 84 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.