“It’s a heart-warming movie. Bringing people together. Bringing community together.” – Damian Lewis
Well, my Covid-19 quarantine seems to have been book ended by two Damian Lewis movies. Run This Town was the last movie I saw at a movie theatre as Covid-19 arrived in the US last year. And, now, Dream Horse has become the first movie I saw at a movie theatre as we finally see the light at the end of the long Covid-19 tunnel.
Angelika Film Center, the movie theater I saw Dream Horse at sent an email earlier last week to let the viewers know that “the feel-good movie of the year” was opening on Friday. I sympathize with the statement that Dream Horse is a “feel good movie.” As we struggle to re-adjust to “normal” life these days, we need hope, strength, and inspiration; and Dream Horse definitely offers us all three and more. Yes, we are off to the races but the story is not about winning or losing. It is about a bunch of villagers solving a collective action problem when all the cards are stacked against them. Dream Horse is about courage, community and second chances.
Janet (Jan) Vokes is a barmaid at the Working Men’s Club where the villagers go to relax, drink, and dance.
Even though her kids are now grownups and have their own families, Jan is still working two jobs (she is also a cleaning lady/cashier at a local supermarket) to make the ends meet. And guess what – everyone in her life expects her to do something for them: Her parents expect her to take care of them, her kids expect her to babysit for them, and her husband Brian, who seems to be constantly sitting in front of the TV, wants to know what is for tea!
Jan is terribly tired of her life. As she has taken care of others for decades, she has never had a chance to do something for herself…. something, in her own words, that she would look forward to and remind her that things can change… And she is intrigued by Howard Davies, a tax adviser and a regular at the Club, who talks about a horse syndicate he once managed. She learns from the Club owner that while Howard loves to talk about the syndicate he managed (because their horse won a few races) he does not like to talk about how the story ended (because he almost lost his house to pay the debts).
Well, horse breeding is widely considered a rich man’s hobby (£15,000 minimum per year for training) with no room for those with the background and socioeconomic status of Jan Vokes. If you stop for a second and think… who comes to mind first when horse racing is concerned in the UK? The Queen!
The breeding process costs a lot of money especially when you choose the mare and the stallion carefully based on their success on the racetrack. And the expenses do not end there. Not that I am any kind of expert but a little bit of research shows that a horse owner is responsible for training fees, farrier services, supplements, clipping as well as regular visits to the vet. So most people who do not have the financial means would never dare to get into horse breeding.
Not Jan Vokes.
Jan is no stranger to breeding animals. She grew up with a father who raced pigeons and the two of them went on to win the Welsh National. Her house is full of rosettes and cups from the races. And while she does not know anything about horse races, she knows this: She needs something to breathe new life into her. So she does her research and tells Brian, her husband, that she is going to breed a racehorse.
Not too fast, Brian 🙂
Since there is no way they can afford a brood mare with a serious record, Jan and Brian get Rewbell, a mare that never won a race in her life, for a bargain £300 (their bank account balance is £318.23 before the purchase). Next is to find someone with some experience in horse breeding.
Enters Howard Davies!
Howard initially makes fun of Jan for buying Rewbell. Yet he is intrigued enough with Jan’s idea of a new syndicate that he finds himself drawing horses at the office during the work day…
…and finds himself at Jan’s front door by the end of it. While he is not ready to share it with his wife Angela, to whom he promised not to get involved with a horse syndicate ever again, Howard is in.
So, like the joke goes, a barmaid, her unemployed husband and a tax adviser walk into a bar, ahem, to set up a syndicate. How? With little money and lots of heart. And while I do not intend to give away the whole thing, I would love to talk a bit about how they set up the syndicate to get you all in the mood for Dream Horse!
They put up a meeting sign in the club and colorful characters, varying from the village butcher to the local drunk show up. Maureen, a lady pensioner, is there because there is nothing good on the telly whereas Gerwyn, the bar owner, wants to have a ringside seat if there is going to be a circus in the village!
The financial calculation is straightforward. Jan and Brian will use their retirement funds to cover the stud fee. Once the foal is born, the syndicate members will collectively own it and contribute a tenner a week to cover its training fees.
Howard is honest with everyone at the pool table.
“There’s less than a one percent chance it’ll ever win a race. If you’re buying in, do it for the Hwyl.”
And a ‘Dream’ is born.
While a number of names from “Welsh Wind” to “Colin Jackson” fly around at the “horse naming” meeting, Jan’s proposal is accepted with a vote:
“It’s our dream. Enrolling it together like an alliance. So – Dream Alliance.”
Dream for short 🙂
Any success? I do not want to give away anything other than saying there exists a number of ups and downs for ‘Dream’ and the syndicate along the way. Besides I would like to discuss a few of my favorite things in the movie.
Firstly, the race scenes are exciting enough to make your inner Eliza Doolittle shout at the top of her lungs “Come on, Dream! Move your bloomin’ arse!” And I cannot help wonder if Damian looks like this (see below) when he roots for his beloved Liverpool. I would have loved to watch a football game with him. I should add that Euros Lyn’s directing is brilliant that the race scenes never overshadow the human story in Dream Horse where relationships – friendships, partnerships, and marriages – evolve.
Secondly, this is not only a sweet story about a bunch of small town people collectively breeding a horse. It is about ordinary people with no titles like “Lord” or “Earl” or “Billionaire” getting into a world traditionally reserved for the cream of the cream in the country. And while the movie is not making any political statement, and rightly so, the upper class dominance in the sport is obvious: The driveway to the stables where Jan and Brian are taking Dream for training being longer than the high street in their village speaks volumes… and I do not think the most preferred mode of transportation for a typical horse owner is a rental bus 🙂
And add to this the odd looks and laughs wealthy owners give the syndicate members as they make it to the owners’ and trainers’ room at Dream’s first race… well, Kirby, the local drunk, tries to sneak in his own beer and cheese sandwich whereas Brian, Jan’s husband, eats the free food served there like he did not eat for a year 🙂
And, finally, when Howard talks about Dream “racing against the big boys” at Newbury, I am positive he talks about themselves, the villagers, racing against the big boys. The syndicate is obviously proud of their accomplishment since, for many of them, contributing a tenner a week is a real financial challenge.
But as Jan reminds them at a critical juncture where they have to make a major decision about Dream, they only have Dream to thank for this accomplishment. Because it is Dream that reminded them, a bunch of people who lost their jobs, their community and even their pride, about how life was like when there was hope.
As they have to deal with some cold realities of horse racing, which mirrors life with ups and downs, it is clear that neither Jan nor Howard is in this for glory or money. They are in this sincerely to be a part of something meaningful, something important in its own right. It is not about peeing next to Andrew Lloyd Webber, or meeting Clare Balding. It is not about Dream winning the big races and getting big prize money. It is all about two middle-aged people who want a little bit more from life getting a second chance. Jan and Howard understand each other. Their sincere zeal is contagious so that they succeed in bringing people together to breed a horse. And the second chance they get manifests itself in the courage they find in themselves to face their personal problems.
Jan finds the courage to have a conversation with Brian about how he gave up on being a fighter. Howard ultimately finds the courage to make an important decision about his career. And Brian, who seems not to even dare to dream since he lost his job years ago, finally finds the courage to take action and speak out.
The cast is brilliant. Toni Collette is flawless as Jan. She brings truth and warmth to the character. Owen Teale is compelling as his supportive spouse. But I think the actor who shows the widest dramatic range in the movie is Damian Lewis. I said it before and I will say it again: I certainly like Damian playing larger-than-life characters such as Henry VIII or Bobby Axelrod, but I like him the best when he brings the average Joe such as Nicholas Brody or William Keane to life. And Damian shines as Howard Davies as the script allows him to bring to life Howard’s varying moods across time and space: He is an arrogant ass when he first talks to Jan at the club, he is a frustrated tax adviser at the workplace, he is a busted little boy when his wife Angela finds out that he is involved with a syndicate again, and he is absolutely true to himself and others when he is involved with Dream and the syndicate. It is a true delight to watch him.
One thing I really really wished to see in the movie was Damian singing – thanks to this tweet by Bari Gwilliam:
— Bari Gwilliam (@barigwilliam) May 18, 2019
And I am happy to report, even though there is no solo performance, there is a lot of singing in the movie, including the Welsh National Anthem which I know Damian sang on Billions set according to his brilliant profile by Lauren Collins in the New Yorker. Oh, and I will not give it away but there is a special musical treat at the very end of the movie. You will LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it.
In closing, I would love to introduce you to the real Howard Davies. He is a lovely man who was very kind to answer my question about what he thought about Damian playing him in the movie.
“Very happy you enjoyed the movie it’s strange seeing yourself portrayed by someone else particularly someone you’ve followed their journey. Being an ex-PwC tax investigation consultant I love Billions but Damian’s ‘Brody’ was the highlight performance for me. “
Well, Howard, if there had been no Nicholas Brody, this blog would never have existed. I was an academic attending to my own thing when a red-headed Brit disguised as a U.S. Marine in Homeland turned everything upside down. I became a Damian Lewis fan for life and launched Fan Fun with Damian Lewis more than six years ago. And I can confidently say that it has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.
Dream is a symbol, and a very aptly named one, demonstrating that anything is possible. As my favorite psychiatrist Irvin Yalom likes to say “it’s never too late, you’re never too old.” So I strongly encourage everyone to see the movie and get inspired to chase their own Dream.
Do it for the Hywl! 🙂
The real Howard Davies also published a memoir Miracle Racehorse Dream Alliance telling the story of Dream Alliance. Howard told me:
“Originally, the book was set to coincide with the film’s release but we all know what happened! Anyway, after Angela decided to help the awful consequences of the pandemic and Brexit by actively supporting food banks etc we decided that when the film finally got released we would donate half of sales to the NHS. It’s only a small gesture but given what Dream Alliance gave us we kind of figured he’d like us to give something back. Honestly, he truly is an amazing individual filled with kindness and awesome intellect.”
Isn’t it beautiful to know that both the real Howard and his wife Angela and Damian and his wonderful late wife Helen have contributed to the NHS during the pandemic? <3
You can follow Howard at @Howie_the_Horse on Twitter and get updates both about the book and the beautiful Dream who is now retired and spending time on green pastures.
— Dream Alliance – Miracle Racehorse (Book) (@Howie_the_Horse) May 21, 2021