A film about a superhorse had me pretty excited, even if its chosen name of Secretariat didn’t quite match the coolness of heroes like Batman, or even Megamind. But then I realised that it wasn’t a spoof involving a heroic horse born with special powers, but actually the story of a racing horse that was really really fast.
Loosely based on a book which, in turn, is sort of the story of the stable that produced this speed-demon of the equine world, Secretariat fuses a template Disney feel-good story with the sports movie format. Director Randall Wallace and writer Mike Rich then season the story with a little of the ‘women battling prejudice’ theme of the kind we saw earlier this year in British industrial action movie (that sounds more exciting than it is) Made In Dagenham.
Opening with the poignant decline of Chris Chenery at his beloved stable, we see his plucky daughter Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) battle off the circling vultures ready to pick apart his racing mini-empire. This small victory is just the beginning, however, as the stable needs a lot of work to get it back to its glory days. Of course, Penny is unperturbed, and is ready to take on the world to succeed. And all this despite, as her husband Jack points out, she’s “just a housewife”. Cue the swell of inspiring music.
As the film progresses, Penny begins to piece together her legacy. The first step was getting hold of a new horse, a horse destined for greatness. But once she has hold of Secretariat, or ‘Big Red’ as he is affectionately dubbed, she needs a trainer. So, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) is dragged from retirement to raise her horse to greatness… and to wear lots of silly hats for comic effect.
Every element of this film is so completely bog-standard that it is difficult to invest too much in it. As you listen to ‘Oh Happy Day’ looped for two hours as the po’ black stable boy fawns over his beloved horse and Diane Lane beams with joy as her inheritance turns from a small ranch into a multi-million dollar stud it’s difficult not to think that the entire movie was pieced together from a magazine series published to help ‘Produce a feel-good film in 5 easy steps’.
But if you’re not particularly attuned to cinematic convention, you’ll probably enjoy it. John Malkovich is genuinely funny in his contrived role as the maverick, oddball trainer who never gives up. Bright shirts and silly hats aside, he can hold up some of the ropey dialogue rather well too.
Likewise Diane Lane does genuinely radiate confidence and beauty in her role as the archetypal woman in a man’s world. Whilst the obstacles Penny Chenery faces come straight from Screenwriting 101, they are recreated so faithfully that do elicit some of the uplifting swells of hope and happiness for which they crafted aeons ago by the founding fathers of Hollywood convention. And say what you will about horse racing as a sport, if you aren’t impressed by a beast that can run like Secretariat did to win the Triple Crown back in 1973 then you have no respect for the exceptional.
That the records set back then have not even been approached today is a sign of just how amazing a horse Secretariat was. And the racing scenes, though again lacking bite, make the most of chaotic clatter of hooves to set the audience’s collective heart racing.