Review: ‘Dream Horse,’ starring Toni Collette and Damian Lewis

May 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Toni Collette and Owen Teale in “Dream Horse” (Photo by Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street and Topic Studios)

“Dream Horse” 

Directed by Euros Lyn

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2002 to 2009, in various parts of the United Kingdom (particularly in Wales), the dramatic film “Dream Horse” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one person of Indian/South Asian heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged woman, who works as a bartender and a supermarket cashier, convinces people in her working-class neighborhood to pool their money to breed a racehorse, despite knowing that they have a lot of odds stacked against them that the horse will become a champion.

Culture Audience: “Dream Horse” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “against all odds” stories and movies about horse racing.

Pictured in front row: Owen Teale, Toni Collette and Damian Lewis in “Dream Horse” (Photo by Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street and Topic Studios)

“Dream Horse” is an against-all-odds horse racing story that is utterly formulaic but completely charming, thanks to admirable performances from the cast, led by Toni Collette and Damian Lewis. The movie is based on a true story, which is why even some of the far-fetched moments have a tone of authenticity. You don’t have to be a fan of horse racing to enjoy the movie, because it’s ultimately a story about the triumph of underdogs and anyone who is often underestimated.

Directed by Euros Lyn and written by Neil McKay, “Dream Horse” begins in 2002, with a look at the humdrum life of Jan Vokes (played by Collette), a middle-aged Brit who is barely making ends meet with two jobs in the former mining village of Cefn Fforest in South Wales. By day, she works as a supermarket cashier. By night, she’s a bartender at a social club whose attendees are mostly middle-aged and elderly people. In addition, Jan has to care for her elderly, ailing parents Bert (played by Alan David) and Elsie (played by Lynda Baron), who has to use a wheelchair after experiencing a fall.

Jan’s home life and marriage are pretty stagnant at the beginning of the story. Her husband Brian (played by Owen Teale) barely pays attention to her, especially when he’s watching farming shows on TV. Brian used to be physically active, but his arthritis has left him unable to work, so Jan is the breadwinner for the household. Jan mentions to Brian that it would be easier to take care of her parents if her parents lived with her and Brian, but Brian doesn’t really respond to that suggestion.

Jan and Brian have two adult children named Dennis and Sasha, who are mentioned but not seen in the movie, since they no longer live with Jan and Brian. These “empty nest” spouses love animals, so they have ducks, a whippet and several pigeons that are part of their household too. Jan bears most of the responsibility for taking care of everyone in her household. And it’s starting to weigh heavily on her.

Brian and Jan are in no danger of breaking up, but Jan feels underappreciated, bored and stuck in a rut. One evening, while working at her bartender job, Jan ovehears a man talking happily and enthusiastically about the race horse that he used to own with a syndicate. The man is sitting at a table with a group of five other men, and he has the group enraptured with his stories.

Jan asks her boss Gerwyn Evans (played by Steffan Rhodri) about this charismatic man. She finds out that his name is Howard Davies (played by Lewis), and he’s a horse racing enthusiast who nearly lost everything (his life savings, house and marriage) after his horse racing syndicate went out of business. Howard now works as a corporate accountant for wealthy clients, and most of his job entails helping his clients legally avoid paying taxes.

Jan is so intrigued by Howard’s passion for horse racing that she begins to research what it takes to own a race horse. She starts by picking up a Horse & Hound magazine at her job. In the magazine, she sees an ad for the latest edition of “Directory of the Turf: The International Guide to Horse Racing.” She buys the book and finds out that it would be possible to breed a racehorse with people in her working-class neighborhood if they pooled their resources for a few years.

The first person Jan shares this idea with is Brian, who is immediately skeptical. His reaction is to laugh and say, “It’s absolute madness!” Undeterred, Jan convinces Brian to help her buy a mare named Rubell. The next step will be to take the mare to get impregnated by a stud stallion, which costs money that Jan and Brian don’t have.

It’s now 2003, and Jan puts her plan into motion to get people in the economically depressed neighborhood to pool their resources and form a horse racing syndicate. When Jan sees Howard at her bartender job, she tells him about her idea for the townspeople to form a syndicate, and she asks him for his expert advice. Howard tells Jan, “It’s mostly wealthy, professional men who go for this kind of thing.”

Jan replies with a huff, “I wasn’t asking for your help anyway.” Because she’s strong-willed and determined, Jan decides to see what she can do on her own to form the syndicate. She makes flyers that say, “Breed a Horse to Get on Course!” The flyers are for the first meeting for potential syndicate members. But when Jan hands out the flyers on the street outside of a facility that takes bets on horse races, she experiences unenthusiastic and apathetic responses.

Jan also puts up flyers around the neighborhood about this first meeting, which will be held at the social club where she works as a bartender. The evening of the meeting, the turnout starts out as dismal: The only attendees are Jan, Brian, Howard and Gerwyn. About 15 minutes after the meeting starts, just as they start to think that they should cancel the meeting, one person arrives, then another, and then another, and so on.

Eventually, 18 people decide to join the syndicate (some of them joined after the first meeting), with Jan as the unofficial leader, since the syndicate was her idea. Most of the group consists of middle-aged people, but there are a few people under the age of 40 and a few who are elderly. During their first meeting, they also agree that no major decisions will be made without putting the decisions up for a group vote. Howard also warns the group that there’s less than a 1% chance that the horse they’ll breed will win a race, but no one backs out of this risky business venture.

The next order of business is to get Rubell impregnated. The syndicate raises enough money for Jan and Brian to take Rubell to a stud farm, where Rubell is matched with a stallion with a race horse lineage. Rubell gives birth to a colt, but she dies shortly after giving birth. Jan and Brian feel even more dedicated to taking care of this colt, now that he is an orphan.

During a syndicate meeting, the group votes on what to name the colt. Jan comes up with the name Dream Alliance (which is a nod to their group), and this name suggestion gets the most votes. Dream Alliance is now on his way to becoming a race horse, but only after he gets the proper training, which requires more money. Because of his experience as an accountant, Howard takes on accounting duties for the syndicate.

By 2006, the syndicate has raised enough money for Dream Alliance (now 3 years old) to be sent to a race horse trainer. Howard suggests Philip Hobbs (played by Nicholas Farrell), who runs one of the best horse racing training facilities in Wales. Jan and Brian bring Dream Alliance to the training facility, with the assumption that Howard made an appointment for them.

But to Jan and Brian’s dismay, Philip tells him that he’s never heard of Howard, and he doesn’t have time for them if they don’t have an appointment. Jan angrily says she can take Dream Alliance to a competitor. Philip sees that Dream Horse might have potential, based on the horse’s physique, and that Jan and Brian have already traveled a long distance to get to the facility. And so, Philip changes his mind and agrees to give Dream Alliance a test run.

You know what happens next: The horse starts off kind of shaky, but then gets the hang of it and starts running like a potential champion. Philip agrees to take on Dream Alliance for training. Then there’s the predictable scene of Jan giving an emotional goodbye to Dream Alliance, since the horse now has to live at the training facility.

The rest of the movie is exactly what you would expect it to be. There are victories and disappointments. And there’s one major championship race at the very end (the 2009 Welsh National), where Dream Alliance faces his biggest challenge after a potentially career-ending setback. Getting him to that race is also fraught with tension because members of the syndicate have different opinions on whether or not Dream Alliance should be in that race.

In “Dream Horse,” Jan is depicted as the driving force and leader of the syndicate, but there are other members whose personalities get some screen time. Brian is Jan’s supportive husband who usually takes her side when the group members disagree. Their involvement in the syndicate also puts a spark back into their marriage.

However, they have a big argument where Jan tells Brian that she thinks he’s become too complacent in life. Jan shouts, “When I first met you, you were a fighter! Now, you just accept things, and you don’t fight anymore!” Brian replies in a resigned tone, “So what your dad said was right: You could’ve done a lot better for yourself.”

There’s another hint that Jan has “daddy issues” when she gets upset with her father Bert for not seeming to care about her horse racing activities whenever she brings up the subject to him. Bert’s seeming indifference is hurtful to Jan, because when she was a child, Bert and Jan spent a lot of father-daughter time getting involved in animal races. These memories are part of one of the most tearjerking scenes in the movie.

Howard is extremely passionate about horse racing, but it’s come at a cost of nearly losing the trust of his wife Angela Davies (played by Joanna Page), who has made Howard promise her that he won’t get involved in horse racing again after it nearly ruined them financially. At one point in the movie, Howard confides in Jan about something from his family’s past (which won’t be revealed in this review) that heavily influenced him to follow his dreams in horse racing. There comes a point in the story when Howard has to decide how much longer he can keep his return to horse racing a secret from Angela and if he wants to stay in the corporate accounting job that he despises.

Other members of the syndicate who get notable screen time include:

  • Gerwyn Evans, Jan’s bartender boss, who is the most likely to see Dream Alliance as a money-making entity.
  • Maldwyn Thomas (played by Anthony O’Donnell), a know-it-all who likes to do a lot of research.
  • Anthony Kerby (played by Karl Johnson), who’s a “no filter” drunk in his 70s and who provides most of the movie’s comic relief.
  • Maureen Jones (played by Siân Phillips), a lonely retiree who has a fondness for eating Tunnock’s milk chocolate tea cakes.
  • Peter Woodall (played by Asheq Akhtar), a co-worker of Howard’s and the only person of color in the group.
  • Gordon Hogg (played by Brian Doherty), a co-worker of Howard’s.
  • Kevin “Kev” French (played by Rhys ap William), a neighbor of Howard’s.
  • A goofy man in his early 20s nicknamed “Goose” (played by Darren Evans), the youngest member of the group.
  • Nerys Driscoll (played by Di Botcher), who likes wearing straw hats.
  • Lee Baldwin (played by Gerald Royston Horler), who is Alun Baldwin’s brother.
  • Alun Baldwin (played by Rhys Horler), who is Lee Baldwin’s brother.

There are times when the syndicate has to choose between greed and the well-being of Dream Alliance. Naturally, when Dream Alliance starts winning major races, he catches the attention of a wealthy horse owner named Lord Avery (played by Peter Davison), whose champion horse Fearless Pursuit is one of Dream Alliance’s competitors. Not surprisingly, there’s conflict in the group over money issues and control.

It’s easy to predict which members of the syndicate will clash the most with Jan, who is not motivated by making money from Dream Alliance but is motivated by the pride and joy that Dream Alliance is bringing to their community. And it also isn’t too surprising when some members of the group remind Jan that she’s not allowed to have too much power in the syndicate, since all of the members of the group have to vote on major decisions together.

“Dream Horse” has perfectly satisfactory direction in its thrilling horse race scenes, as well as the interactions that the humans have with each other. Collette’s Jan character is really the heart and soul of the story though. When she finally starts to smile and feel like her life matters, her happiness is infectious to the people around her and to people who watch this movie. Jan’s transformation is a reflection of this movie’s message that this race horse was never about the prize money but about what can happen when people take big risks on a dream, even with seemingly huge obstacles in their way.

Bleecker Street and Topic Studios released “Dream Horse” in U.S. cinemas on May 21, 2021. The movie’s VOD and digital release date is June 11, 2021.