Review: A Town in Decline Gets a Shot at First Place in Feel-Good, if Lightweight, Dream Horse

A few months ago, in my review of the Netflix drama The Dig, I discussed my love of a certain type of British film that was popular in the 1990s. I don’t know if they were ever given a collective name, but they all seemed to be set in small communities that very often had a task at hand that was required in order to keep the town alive and perhaps even restore some small amount of its former glory. If Dream Horse had been released in that period, it would have fit in quite nicely. Directed by Euros Lyn (a veteran of some of the highest-profile British TV series) and written by Neil McKay, this true story is about a Welsh woman named Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), who simply wants a chance to do something she feels is substantial in a town, and with a husband, Brian (Owen Teale), who seems to be content repeating them same day, every day.

Dream Horse
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Jan works several jobs (including store clerk, bartender, and taking care of her elderly parents), which seems necessary in a town like this, one without a lot of prospects, and she eventually gets it in her head that she’d like to work with animals again (she and Brian both did at one point). She lands on the idea of breeding and raising a race horse, but the only way she can afford the stud fees and boarding costs of the new pony is to raise quite a bit of money. She eventually convinces about 25 members of the community to chip in 10 pounds per week for two years, until the horse is ready for its first race.

Jan is a natural leader, but more importantly she’s great at inspiring people to see her ideas (and accompanying research) clearly. She even convinces Howard (Damian Lewis), a businessman who frequents her bar and has a history of investing in race horses, to chip in and help steer her in the right direction. For a time, he leaves out the part about almost losing his home and family because of the losses he accrued during his ventures, but he feels this time things will be different. His wife (Joanna Page) doesn’t quite see it that way, and the two almost end things when she finds out he’s involved with horses again.

As you might expect, the horse-raising establishment doesn’t take kindly to this group of owners crashing the owners box, but they are a lively bunch, especially when their horse, Dream Alliance, starts to do well. Before long, it’s placing in the top three and eventually winning races, appearing to be well on its way to the prestigious championship, the Welsh Grand National. There are significant stumbling blocks, including a major fall that almost results in the horse being put down, a decision a few of the owners would be okay with because it means they’d cash in on insurance money. Jan is mortified at the mere suggestion, however, and at how quickly some of her friends are willing to give up on Dream Alliance.

Dream Horse is a fairly lightweight, feel-good affair, elevated by some key performances from Collette, Lewis, Teale, and even Karl Johnson (Game of Thrones) as the lovable town drunk who loves to drop his pants when he’s celebrating. But the film succeeds more often than it misses the mark thanks to well-shot horse-racing sequences; a believable journey by Jan, who finds ways to accomplish a great deal with little money or experience in this field; and by telling the story of a small town that has essentially given up on itself and is revitalized by this determined young horse. It’s not going to change the world, but the movie is only concerned with lifting your spirits and making you laugh on occasion.

The film is now playing in select theaters, including Landmark Century Cinema in Chicago, and will be available digitally on June 11.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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