Ride Like a Girl (2019)

I don’t like to feature films on my site that I think are disappointing, as it seems to me a poor way to use a platform, however few followers one might have (and I don’t have many). However, I’ve committed myself to another Australian-themed week (which so far is by women directors) and I haven’t got many films to draw on, or time to watch new ones, so here’s one I saw on the plane over. It’s directed by Rachel Griffiths, a long-established actor whose work I’ve really appreciated, turning her hand to directing.

I know nothing about horse racing, or the competitive life of the professional jockey — though I am reminded that I’ve read a novel about a young woman riding horses for a living (it’s called House Rules by Heather Lewis) and let me tell you that had a very different tone to this film. Sadly, for all its positive messaging about young women growing up to achieve their dreams, Ride Like a Girl sticks to a programmatic structure and a deeply predictable template that majors on big swelling music to convey emotional journeys. The actors are uniformly excellent, but many of their best qualities are lost in the mix here, and the undoubtedly talented work of the jockey whose life is being told here seems reduced to a series of cliches. Still, it all looks very handsome.

Ride Like a Girl film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Griffiths; Writers Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie; Cinematographer Martin McGrath; Starring Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill, Stevie Payne; Length 120 minutes.
Seen on a flight from London to Auckland, Friday 21 February 2020.

Palio (2015)

I’ve already seen one film about horse racing this year as part of my project, and it was perfectly likeable, but I wasn’t exactly enthused about getting back in the saddle (sorry). And yet Palio turns out to be one of the best documentaries this year, not to mention entirely gripping, about a sport I retain very little interest in. Partly that’s because the racing itself seems almost a sideline to the personalities, politics and corruption involved — like any good Italian drama, surely? This short race, run twice a year around the main square in Siena, has been going since mediaeval times, and is competed by the city’s 17 districts, each with their own cartoonish name (Wave, Unicorn, Eagle, and the like) complemented by a colourful banner and uniform for their jockey. But it’s those jockeys the film focuses in on, because they embody all the contradictions and drama of the contest. They hold no district affiliations, just a keen desire to ride the victorious horse (a horse can still win even if the rider is thrown). There’s no reward aside from the glory and a ceremonial banner, and the avoidance of a possibly brutal kicking from their district if they lose. But it’s also not a cheap thing to succeed, for it’s a game that rewards those that play it best, making deals, rigging the votes and administering hefty bribes along the way. It’s certainly no secret that this goes on, although the reigning champion, Gigi Bruschelli (a man with a twinkling, sardonic smile), demurs on getting into the details. Instead the director calls on the old-timers to provide commentary, and they clearly hold no love and only grudging respect for Bruschelli, looking instead to a young Sardinian, Giovanni Atzeni, to prevent Bruschelli reaching a record number of wins. It unfolds like a political thriller, and continues to build and provide surprising revelations, but it’s also a fond portrait of a small number of men who speak with passion and eloquence about a sport that from the outside seems bizarre and ridiculous. That said, I can’t let the review go by without mentioning that it’s also a sport that takes its toll not just on the jockeys (whether flung from their steeds and trampled under foot, or attacked brutally by the enflamed crowds) but the horses; the film doesn’t really engage with this directly, although it features a number of the races, shot and edited with a keen sense both of its thrilling speed and incipient danger — there are pile-ups every bit as spectacular as in Formula 1. In a sense this is an issue with horse racing as a whole, and it will never be a favourite amongst animal rights activists, but even within this context the Palio seems particularly tough going. However, as a human drama, Palio is superlative.

Palio film posterCREDITS
Director Cosima Spender; Writers Spender and John Hunt; Cinematographer Stuart Bentley; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 1 October 2015.

Dark Horse (2015)

I’m not a horsey person, nor do I tend to ever watch horse racing, but when I was younger we did occasionally watch the Grand National, as it was always the one race on which my granny would have a flutter. She had also taken me a few times to horse racing meets, which always seemed to me a strange mix of impossibly posh with the shabby plebeian, and were usually good fun, even if I didn’t have half a clue about what I was supposed to see in the horses as they paraded by. However, despite all that, there’s plenty even for me to enjoy in this story of an unlikely alliance of villagers in Wales who stumped up some cash and helped to breed and train a horse, Dream Alliance, which made it as far as that most august of British sporting fixtures. The ups and downs of Dream’s career are part of the story, which was unknown to me, so I shan’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say this film has plenty of zip, with heavy use of musical score to hold together the talking heads and archival footage, keeping things moving along at a fair trot. The filmmakers are attentive to the disparity in class between the villagers and most other horse owners and trainers, and hints that maybe the rich owners have less love for the animals themselves as for the sport. However, the bulk of the film is buoyed by the engaging charm of the villagers in telling their unlikely and emotional story.

Dark Horse film posterCREDITS
Director Louise Osmond; Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 22 April 2015.