DARK HORSE was presented as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. For more showtimes, head here.
I don’t like horses too much, okay. It’s not that I don’t think they’re beautiful, because they are truly striking, elegant creatures. It’s just that they’re so, so big. And those hooves. Despite this, I found myself incredibly excited to be seeing Louise Osmond’s Dark Horse. There’s nothing I love more than an underdog journey and when I read that this particular underdog journey was helmed by a woman, I was completely sold. And within the first few minutes of the film, I was in love.
Dark Horse opens on the Welsh countryside, all lush and rolling green. Hazy, close-up shots of horses pull in and out of focus while a voiceover talks about the elation of doing something nobody thought could be done. The thing that nobody thought could be done? A bunch of lowly, working class townspeople breeding a world-class race horse.
Jan Vokes was working as a barmaid in Cefn Fforest, a small community in Wales, when she decided she wanted to breed a race horse. Just like that—she thought of it one night, told her husband what she wanted to do, and he knew better than to stand in her way (good man). She found a mare and stud to do their, uh, horse-mating thing and put a chalkboard sign in the bar stating: “Breed a horse, get on the course, 10 per week.” I like to think the rhyming helped, but this was all Jan. Soon enough, she had put together a syndicate to help cover the cost of raising their horse. They had a vote for his name and fittingly he was called Dream Alliance.
Director Osmond effortlessly captures Jan’s infectious spirit, as well as her hilarious husband and quirky townspeople through candid, intimate interviews. Thoughtfully woven throughout are beautiful, dream-like reenactment scenes that help to shape the story. And what an incredibly, inspiring story it was. I was completely taken by the people of Cefn Fforest and their spirited-ness. Against all odds, they raised a winning race horse from not just “humble,” but pretty much “nothing” beginnings. If you’re unaware of the world of horse racing, there isn’t anything “humble” about it. It is a world of top hats and white gloves and I loved seeing these “common folk” from team Dream Alliance shake it up. Take that, rich jerks. Ha.
Dream Alliance had far from a perfect race life, though. After a serious injury and almost dying, his family was left wondering if he’d ever race again. (Tears streaming down my face at this point.) It’s common to put down horses when they can’t race anymore, but Jan’s (and the entire syndicate, really) deep love for Dream Alliance protected him and gave him a second chance.
When asked what attracted her to the film, Osmond said she initially set out looking for a “Rocky, but with a horse” story and with Dream Alliance and his syndicate, she found something more. Dark Horse is a classic underdog story, of course, but the family and pride forged with the people in Dream Alliance’s life are what really make it so damn heartwarming.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.