By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Dark Horse” is “Rocky” with a mane and a tail.
Plus, it’s a true story.
Call it “Nags to Riches.” The British papers did when a true dark horse – no pedigree worth noting, owned by a bunch of nobody’s – became a national phenomenon.
It all begins in 2000, in a tiny Welsh town named Cefn Fforest. Jan Vokes, a genial barmaid/cleaning lady, decides she’d like to own a racehorse. So she buys a mud-covered mare for 300 pounds, breeds her to a stallion whose biggest asset is a low stud fee and voila: A beautiful chestnut colt with four white stockings and a blaze on his nose.
Jan doesn’t have the funds to raise a horse, let alone a potential racehorse. So she convinces about 30 of her friends to go in with her and form an alliance. For 10 pounds a week, they can be part owners of her dream. And of her horse, named – what else? – Dream Alliance.
They send Dream off to a posh stable where, as long as they can pay him, a posh trainer takes him on. So Dream, who’s grown up in a makeshift “paddock” next to a power station, moves into a stable full of bluebloods, equine and human.
Wouldn’t you know it (and remember, this is all true): Dream is fast. Really fast. Plus, he has what his trainer calls a kind of streetwise scrappiness. He doesn’t just like to run. He likes to win. And win he does. Not always, but over and over, until he ends up at the Grand National (generally better known as the race a young Elizabeth Taylor won in “National Velvet.”)
You may think you already know Dream’s story – and in a way, you do. However, this fairy tale has several unexpected twists – stem-cell surgery, the economic impact of a miners’ strike, what the Welsh national anthem sounds like – that fit in well with its inherent quirkiness.
“Dark Horse” is every bit as irresistible as “Billy Elliott” or “The Full Monty.” Like them, it’s about working-class heroes who do what nobody else thought they could.
And while it’s a documentary, “Dark Horse’s” style recalls those charming Brit comedies from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, made at the Ealing Studios (Peter Sellers got his start there). It’s a bit off-center, yet full of faith in the underdog.
Director Louise Osmond astutely imbues “Dark Horse” with the villagers’ natural charm and sense of humor – especially Jan who, when they make the Hollywood version, will likely be played by Helen Mirren (with, say, Jim Broadbent as her dentally-challenged husband). And maybe Dream will be able to play himself; he’s got that camera-friendly charisma.
But don’t wait around; “Dark Horse” is an absolute delight just as it is.
Film Buff Addendum: It really is no wonder “Dark Horse” is so terrific. In 2006, Osmond also made an excellent documentary called “Deep Water,” based on the true story of a disastrous round-the-world yacht race held in 1968. Only a few people saw it, but among them, apparently, was director James Marsh (“The Theory of Everything”). “Deep Water” is getting its Hollywood close-up, with Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz in the lead roles. It should be in theaters later this year.