Film Review: Dark Horse: Dream Alliance

David Gritten / 17 April 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten applauds Dark Horse: Dream Alliance, a British documentary about an unlikely star of the race track.

It’s somehow fitting that a film about the success of an underdog racehorse should be an underdog itself. Dark Horse: Dream Alliance, a modest, low-budget British documentary came out of nowhere to win the Audience Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the US back in January. It was an unfancied, long-odds entry; and still it won.

You only need to see the film to work out why. It tells the story of Dream Alliance, a horse of dubious pedigree (to put it mildly) who achieved great success. If the horse is the star, then there’s a host of supporting human players – the people of Cefn Fforest, a quiet former mining village in south Wales, most of them habitués of the local pub. Some 30 of them bought shares to breed an as yet unborn racehorse for the princely sum of £10 a week, and see how things turned out.

Their expectations were comfortably exceeded, as Dream Alliance (his name was chosen by a democratic vote of the villagers) turned out to be stout-hearted – a determined, competitive horse who never knew he was beaten. The film tracks the surprising triumphs and setbacks of his remarkable career.

Jan Vokes, a middle-aged barmaid at the pub, started the ball rolling; she had bred dogs and birds, and one day, talking to a local tax adviser named Howard Davies, decided to breed a racehorse – though he had tried it before without success.

But the idea wasn’t just Jan’s passion – enthusiasm for it spread. The fortunes of Dream Alliance became a focus for the entire village, going through hard times since mining ceased to be an industry there. One of the loveliest aspects of the film is the villagers talking to camera, humorously and sometimes emotionally, about what Dream Alliance meant to them. And quite clearly there’s a class issue here: these are people who on their own could not afford to dabble in the Sport of Kings, but together gave it their best shot.

Some of this is played for light comedy – the Cefn Fforest ‘syndicate’ showing up to racecourses to watch Dream Alliance, gaining access to the owners’ enclosure and finding themselves surrounded by what one can only call toffs.

The villagers are a likable bunch, and their willingness to wear their hearts on their sleeves (whether on camera or not) is apparent. They’re not knowing enough or privileged enough to play down their feelings. Their delight in the successes of their horse is unadorned by irony or play-acting; when they speak of “Dream” (as they call him), their eyes shine.

Director Louise Osmond has judiciously used TV footage to illustrate key moments in Dream Alliance’s career, but her material – of the horse itself and the villagers who love him – is by far the strongest.

If there’s one mild quibble it is that the Dream Alliance narrative is laid out from the outset, leaving little room for surprises. And though the film is a mere 88 minutes long, there are a few redundant moments, notably after archival footage, when a villager tells us what we’ve just seen. At times like these, the film feels slightly thin.   

But in fairness, Osmond has delivered a work that tugs at the heart-strings and occasionally makes the eyes go moist. There’s a calm, gentle quality to Dark Horse: Dream Alliance which, combined with its rousing feel-good narrative, makes it virtually irresistible. I’d award this film a C certificate: C for ‘crowd-pleaser.’

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