Dream Horse, PG, 113 minutes. Four stars.
How do you explain the emergence of a champion? What does it really take to overcome the odds and beat the rest?
Dream Alliance, the horse that won the Welsh Grand National in 2009, did not have a promising start. He began his life on a slag heap allotment in a town in southern Wales. Bred by amateurs and raised through a syndicate of townsfolk, he went on to claim first prize at one of the top events in horseracing.
If there is an explanation beyond good genes, good fortune and a competitive spirit, then I don't know that this sweet, feel-good story with a light comic touch provides it. Yet Dream Horse will surely lifts the spirits.
A documentary was made about the remarkable career of Dream Alliance a few years ago. Dark Horse: the Incredible Story of Dream Alliance was released in 2015 and won the audience award at Sundance. It was a crowd pleaser of a doco, just like this fiction feature based on the true events.
As Jan Vokes, Toni Collette, with a Welsh accent, is the beating heart of this story. When her idea of raising a racehorse took hold, Jan was working as a barmaid, a cleaner and a supermarket cashier, supporting her unemployed, arthritic husband.
She managed to convince her husband, Brian (Owen Teale), to buy a brood mare. Rewbell was going cheap at $300 and the couple were delighted to take her.
The mare becomes part of the family, joining an assortment of ducks, geese, goats and a large shaggy dog that is allowed to sleep on the couple's bed. Their adult children long gone, Jan and Brian maintain a strong interest in raising various birds and animals, something for which they seem to share a vocation.
The eccentricities of the Vokes and many of the other townfolk are revealed without condescension. The director, Welshman Euros Lyn, whose career has been spent mostly in television, is very gentle with the town's oddball characters. One suspects that another directorial sensibility would have worked harder for laughs at their expense.
The screenplay by Neil McKay, who is also from television, is lively and well written, a tableau of small-town life as well as the story of a champion.
To pursue her dream, Jan needs business advice and teams up with Howard Davies (Damien Lewis), a local tax accountant.
Jan and Norman invite expressions of interest from the townsfolk to form a syndicate to help with the costs of getting Rewbell impregnated and her foal raised to race. The proposal is taken up with surprising enthusiasm, despite Howard warning that there's a 1 per cent chance the horse will ever win a race.
So why do it then? For the high. For the emotional energy and motivation lacking in this little corner of Wales.
Collette is superb in the role of a woman, kind and loyal, who aspires for more from life. Nothing comes undone as a result of her ambition.
Something of her spirit is transferred to Dream Alliance, the "allotment horse" that comes from the back of the field in his first race to win by a couple of lengths.
After several placings in subsequent races, he next wins at Aintree on his way to the big prize.
There are many moments when the film steps back to take in the beautiful rural locations. The vistas of the soft Welsh countryside evoke a strong sense of place. Even Welshman Tom Jones gets to sing lustily on the soundtrack. Welsh pride is everywhere.
I'm not so sure that those close-ups of Jan eyeballing Dream Alliance work, as though the horse's drive had to come from his owner. Those scenes were not necessary, but that's a minor quibble about a crowd-pleaser that feels good from start to finish.