'Dark Horse' plays out as an ethos-packed, David vs Goliath tale

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Digging into the Earth with its hind legs, the horse springs forward over the steeplechase fence. The jump looks efficient and clean. That is, until the horse lands back on the ground, nearly collapsing on impact. 

Scenes like this create feelings of anxiety and restlessness, emotions that persist throughout “Dark Horse,” a documentary about an improbable race horse named Dream Alliance. Infusing suspense with character development, director Louise Osmond brings out the best in the subjects of the story, from the horse-breeding “syndicate” of 30 middle-class Welsh villagers to Dream Alliance himself. 

At the heart of the film is a David and Goliath tale, centering on the common, everyday Welsh community as they breed a champion horse. It’s inspiring to see each syndicate member, some hardly able to put food on their table, chip in on the expenses of training the horse, especially when training costs are usually footed by millionaires and billionaires.    

Osmond tells the story through the syndicate members’ dialogue. From the beginning, the audience meets Jan Vokes, a former barmaid and supermarket cleaner who thought up the idea of raising a horse of her own. After dropping out of school when she was 16, Vokes felt like she was missing out on living her life, so she persuaded her husband Brian to buy a young, bruised and battered stallion from a local vendor. Characters such as Jan and Brian Vokes, as well as their colleague Howard Davies, breathe life into the film. Each member has their own unique story and recollection of events. With such entertaining characters, it wouldn’t be surprising to see high-profile actors hopping in on a dramatized version of the events. 

Nonetheless, some of the dialogue is distorted, with a few subjects passing up an explanation or description and settling instead for a hearty chuckle or silent reflection. The audience can only infer what is going on inside their heads. 

But what makes up for some of the slacking commentary is the terrific job done by editor Joby Gee, who splices together home-video footage with dramatized recreations of the events. The effect is rewarding, allowing the audience to watch the ups and downs of the races as they occurred, adding to the suspense. There’s a sense of great magnitude when Dream Alliance wins his first highly contested race — the group’s horse isn’t supposed to be a contender. 

Although the story is captivating, Osmond fails to spin it in an original way, falling into similar territory as prior horse-racing films such as 2003’s “Seabiscuit.”  It’s too easy to spot the twists. When things turn sour, musical cues ensure the audience knows it’s a heavy moment. It’s both effective and painstakingly obvious. There’s a moment when Welsh singer Tom Jones’ emotional number, “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” plays over a serene vista shot after a traumatic moment. The transition doesn’t feel organic in the slightest. 

Regardless of a few missteps, “Dark Horse” is carried by the human element ingrained in the film. The familial bond the syndicate members share with each other and the horse is compelling. When the horse loses an important race, the audience witnesses the tears flood from the eyes of the people who supported him over the years. The emotional resonance is reminiscent of any feel-good sports drama. 

“Dark Horse” is certainly pleasing to watch — the audience can’t help but root for Dream Alliance and the informal family that raised him. When the film draws to a close, the audience will be cheering for this fish-out-of-water tale.