A few weeks ago, Chapter Arts Centre; my local, and brilliant independent cinema (seriously, no food is allowed in the cosy little screens, meaning no rustling of packets, or munching of popcorn), hosted a special event, in conjunction with BAFTA Cymru. ‘Wales at Sundance’ saw advanced screenings of two films that had been selected from over 12,000 submissions, to go to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The first was a short, animated feature, called Teeth; a dark and disturbing story about a man’s life-long relationship with his teeth. Directed by Daniel Gray and Tom Brown, it’s a twisted tale, that had me wincing from behind my hands, the entirety of its short length. It’s a grown up and ballsy piece of animation, that I’m not sure I’d quite like to see again, if only because it totally freaked me out; but it’s nevertheless an impressive work of art, technically and narratively.
Before I had enough time to recover from the shock of Teeth, it was swiftly followed up with the main feature of the evening; Dark Horse. Directed by Louise Osmond and winner of the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary, at this years Sundance Festival; it recounts the true story of a small and poor Welsh town, where in 2000, a group of people formed a syndicate to adopt and breed a champion racehorse. Having had experience racing pigeons and breeding whippets, Jan Voakes, a barmaid at the local men’s club, decides to take on the “sport of kings”, by raising a racehorse with the financial and moral support from the local community. Raised on an old allotment, on the side of a hill, it was a humble upbringing for the horse named Dream Alliance, who would go on to become a serious competitior in the higher class world of horse racing.
That’s all I’m going to say in terms of story, because the less you know going into Dark Horse, the better. Even though I felt I knew the story, I really didn’t, and was surprised as it progressed in ways I didn’t expect. To steal one the headlines of a national paper, that covered the Dream Alliance story at the time; Dark Horse is a ‘nags to riches’ story, that lends itself fantastically to the big-screen. Louise Osmond’s truly impressive documentary, is hugely cinematic, thematically, dramatically, and visually. Audiences and film-maker’s alike, all love inspirational success stories, that tell of heroes and winners from the unlikeliest of places. Dark Horse is the epitome of that; an uplifting, life-affirming and heartwarming story, that is good for the soul. It essentially has everything you could want, and more, from a Hollywood production; not least in terms of drama, as Osmond cleverly splices archive footage with re-constructions, to create enough tension that will make your pulse race almost as fast as the on-screen horses.
There’s a huge amount of humour that runs throughout it too, that’s mainly derived from the characters of the story, who I suppose could be described as stereotypically Welsh; at least on the surface. There’s not an ounce of meaness in the way they are portrayed though and when the audience is laughing, it’s with, not at, the featured people. You get a sense that Osmond is fond of her subjects, treating them with respect, whilst drilling down to the core of their personalities. It’s interesting that for each member of the syndicate, Dream Alliance means something different, whether that be a chance to make a name for yourself in a small community; an opportunity to finish what you started years ago; or simply the only good thing you have in your life, when everything else is awful. The different stories behind each persons involvement, give Dark Horse an instantly relatable and rich, human depth.
What I really loved about the film though, is how it’s textured with sociopolitical comments on the class system. Just as much as Dark Horse is indeed about a horse, it’s equally a story about the working class infiltrating the wealthy, upper class. This is dealt with often, to comic effect, but there’s a serious side to it that gives the film an intelligent relevance as well. In a way, it reminded me of last years highly successful Pride, for reasons other than its about a Welsh miners. Like Pride, Dark Horse, tells a human story about community spirit, but set against a a political backdrop of economic and class oppression. The two would make an interesting double feature and are equally uplifting.
On a technical level alone, Dark Horse deserves high praise; boasting kinetic editing and wonderfully crisp photography. It’s much more than that though; a riveting, touching, exciting and best of all, true underdog story, which will make you laugh and at times, keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s a crowdpleaser, that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. I certainly hope it does.
Dark Horse is out 17th April.
Image credit to http://www.sundance.org