Truth is often stranger than fiction, a hoary truism that has led to many a documentary making its mark on the film world. The latest to do so is Dark Horse (2015), which won the audience award at January’s Sundance Film Festival, a feat in keeping with the film’s subject. Director Louise Osmond chronicles the career of race horse ‘Dream Alliance’. Owned by a syndicate of working class people in a small town in Wales, the horse defied convention, injury and expectation to win some of the most prestigious races in Britain. The picture is as textbook an underdog story as anything to have come out of Hollywood, and yet it’s the sincerity of the principles who tell the story that make it so uniquely compelling.
The owners are a colourful group of locals, all of whom live within the shadow of the mining closures that have made their town something of a forgotten corner of the Welsh countryside. Recurring themes of class and defying the odds are personified in Jan Vokes, a likeable barmaid who, on a whim, decides to realise her dream of breeding a racehorse, and begins this story. The sincerity and relatable nature of everyone involved is clear to see. Vokes repeatedly draws a maternal parallel, and for the owners in general it becomes clear that ‘Dream Alliance’ is not a meal ticket, or even an investment, but a part of the village. Such sentiment would be easy to scoff at, but particularly when the horse endures an injury that threatens to end his racing career, feels too genuine to evoke any cynicism.
Another legitimising factor is the exploration of horse racing as a pursuit of the elite. The fairy tale of working class people thrust into the owners’ box alongside millionaires and aristocracy is a seductive one, and further gives personality to the villagers and the horse itself as they collectively defy the expectations of professional trainers, dismissive analysts and commentators. As the well-spoken trainer fights back tears recalling a particularly decisive win, it’s clear that despite any sentiment this is a story worth telling. Not all of the way it is told is quite so easy to swallow, however. Very obvious musical cues underline the film’s need to put a lump in your throat, and more cynical observers might comment that while this is a moving story, it never quite feels as urgent as it could be. These niggles aside, Dark Horse is a relentlessly pleasing film that has all the satisfying hallmarks of a Rocky-like underdog tale with the added value of being true. While one suspects a feel-good studio adaptation won‘t be far off, the real story is a worthwhile bet.
James Luxford | @JLFilm