Directed by Louise Osmond
DARK HORSE tells the larger than life true story of how a barmaid in a former mining village in South Wales bred a racehorse on her allotment that went on to become a champion. Jan had successfully bred dogs and birds and believed she could do the same with a different animal – though she knew nothing about racing and had never been on a horse. Convincing a handful of locals to part with ten pound a week for her scheme, she found a thoroughbred mare with a terrible racing record for £300, a stallion past his best, put them together and – against all the odds – bred a winner. It’s an audacious tale of luck and chance and beating the odds; a story of how a gaggle of working class folk from the Welsh Valleys took on the racing elite, broke through class and financial barriers, and brought hope and pride back to their depressed community.
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★★★★½ review by Scott Renshaw on Letterboxd
It’s a true story that unfolds almost exactly like a Weinstein-produced fictionalized remake would—and it’s still almost absurdly satisfying. Director Louise Osmond tracks the remarkable tale of a group of working-class residents in a Wales coal-mining town—led by barmaid/grocery store custodian Jan Vokes—that joins financial forces to breed and train a steeplechase race horse they dub Dream Alliance. The unadorned, improbable tale of Dream Alliance’s career alone would make for a terrific bit of journalism, but Osmond does a near-perfect job of putting the elements together—archival footage where available, only the most necessary background information about the key players, dreamy images of the Welsh landscape, and talking-head interviews that bubble over with the charm and personality of the subjects. In some ways, every bend and twist of the narrative might feel manipulative if they were part of a purely-fabricated script, right down to the anthropomorphizing of Dream Alliance as an embodiment of his hometown’s feisty spirit. Yet the exuberant emotions of the real-life participants make Dark Horse a rarity among retrospective documentaries: a lump-in-the-throat, tears-in-the-eyes crowd-pleaser.
★★★★ review by meltwaterfalls on Letterboxd
Blackwood must have one of the highest success/ citizen rations in the world. Genuinely heartwarming and interesting story, and Nicky Wire is nowhere to be seen.
★★★★ review by Bob Hovey on Letterboxd
Just as with most fictional films, the most important thing in producing a good documentary is picking the right story, and this truly is is an amazing one. A barmaid in a depressed Welsh coal mining town convinces friends and neighbors to go into partnership on a do-it-yourself racehorse project... they buy a genetically-promising mare with a lackluster racing career, breed her with a fairly successful stallion and some months later they're off to the races, as it were.
In the grand scheme of documentary film-making technique, there's nothing too imaginative or out of the ordinary here ... it's a fairly safe and predictable mix of news footage, reenactments, atmospheric shots of the village and countryside, plus the ubiquitous talking heads.
What sets it apart and makes it work is the story and the players. This is an irresistibly heart-warming fairy tale, related first hand by a charming group of audacious yet down-to-earth working class people. We're instantly won over by their unflinching good humor and their steadfast devotion to a horse, a horse who repays their devotion in full measure.
The film's most interesting cast member is Dream Alliance himself, a stately and graceful creature with a Herculean heart. Even without Alec Ramsey or Velvet Brown in the saddle, his Cinderella story will probably have you a little misty by the time the end credits roll.
★★★½ review by Harvey Gardner on Letterboxd
An interesting, if very conventionally told, doc about the working class rising up through their bond over a horse. Occasionally poignant, it shows real people on screen like very few films ever do. Truthful. However, the filmmaker doesn't delve into the brutality of Horse Racing and avoids critiquing it at all costs, which is a real shame, considering that the documentary could have been made a lot more memorable if it had. It is, at it's heart, about a poor community battling the hierarchy though, and for that it can be often wonderful.
This is the first film that I've seen in my short time ushering at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. I'm ushering there for the Edinburgh Film Festival, so except a lot more content from me and any funny anecdotes that come out of working there. :)
★★★★ review by paul on Letterboxd
In a glorious romp where equestrian spirit echoes the human spirit, this true story documentary rises far above the normal talking heads style doc, not only for its story, but for the way in which director Louise Osmond handles the material.
What this film so ably captures is the indomitable spirit of the everyday people of a small Welsh mining village who, on the whim of Jan, a part time bartender and “cleaner” of the local grocery store, decide to form a syndicate and purchase a brood mare and stallion in order to breed a race horse. This is a lower class village where the main industry supporting the town is a floundering coal mine – and yet many of the townspeople band together on this Quixotic enterprise… with no idea of what they are doing… and yet somehow….
There are echoes of class structure here, as the rag tag band present their young stallion, Dream Alliance to a famed horse trainer. In his interviews he admits that he thought the people were crazy as the brood mare had no racing success and the breed stallion only a few top 3 finishes; but decides that as long as the people are putting up the money, he will treat Dream Alliance equally to the other more well pedigreed stallions under his charge. He admits that Dream Alliance is not the fastest horse in the pen, but calls him a street fighter, with a will to perform… “giving it his all”.
Osmond does a fantastic job of portraying a horse not only born to run, but one who revels in that simple joy. There is an amazing amount of actual footage shot of the horse, from birth through adolescence and the scenes of Dream kicking up his heels are inspiringly beautiful; as are the shots of the verdant Welsh countryside (one such shot even has revered Welshman Tom Jones crooning The Green, Green Grass of Home to drive home the point).
What happens with Dream Alliance and the townspeople comprises the rest of the story – and it is almost a fairy tale, yet grounded in reality. In all a very heartwarming film that is worthy of the investment of your time.
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