Whenever I attend any screening, I usually have a slight inkling of what movie I’m going to be checking out, whether it’s the base genre, an actor or actress involved or some piece of the storyline. Heading into Dark Horse, I thought I was seeing a New Zealand made film about a troubled chess player who takes on the responsibility of teaching underprivileged youth how to play the game. As the beginning studio tags started, I noticed a British Film Institute tag, then a Film Four, then a Wales production logo, I started to wonder why all of these companies had a hand in this movie. Turns out it was a different Dark Horse altogether and I felt a little bit dumb.
So, instead of a redemption drama from the Kiwis, I was treated to an inspirational documentary about a group of individuals going far outside their knowledge base to create something that would change all of their lives and bring them even closer together. The only thing holding me back from being immediately engaged with the film was my disinterest in the subject matter at hand but, given the documentary genre’s wide reach; I was willing to give this Dark Horse more than a fair shot. Sometimes a sleeper can really knock you through a loop and, after my gaff, I was looking for some redemption of my own.
Dark Horse takes place in a small, pretty tight-knit valley village in South Wales. The local working men’s club, also known as a bar, decide to do something outlandish as a group when Jan Vokes and her husband, a jolly and mostly toothless gentleman nicknamed “Daisy”, give any interesting proposition. They want to breed a horse to run in competitions. A lofty goal that gives some of the club members a little trepidation, the entire group eventually agrees and they start to formulate a plan of action and it was a pretty sound one at that.
Another of the locals, Howard Davies, used to be employed as a tax advisor and sets up each member of the club as an equal shareholder in the horse with a payment of ten pounds a week. With the costs of the necessary mare, the stallion’s sperm and the care and training of the eventual offspring being very high and the probability that the investment will bear fruit being low, it’s easy to say that the “syndicate” is sweating a bit over the results. When the foal is born, Jan gives it the name Dream Alliance, a fitting name for exactly what this champion hopeful is to this small village and the results that this horse brings them is pretty astounding.
Dark Horse is very much an underdog story and a pretty inspirational one at that. Here’s a group of people way out of their element, committing to raising a championship worthy race horse, coming together with whatever they have to make it so. Each interview with the members of Dream Alliance’s owners comes across as endearing, delivering that truly basic human story that we love to see in documentaries. It’s also interesting to see that it’s not just Dream Alliance himself being looked down upon by the other established members of the horse race community, but the actual alliance itself being scrutinized in the unfortunate snobbery of the competition.
As a visual narrative, Dark Horse is hampered by some directorial choices that bring the film to its knees. The use of real footage is something that could have worked in the documentary’s favor but the quality of the picture is so low that it looks like a grainy alien abduction video or a potato version of a leaked trailer from comic con. It’s completely unappealing to the eyes. There are also re-enactments of some moments in the bar with our interview subjects reliving their post-race celebrations that come off really strange, awkward and even laughable sometimes. This takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of this documentary, a kind of beginner’s mistake.
For having zero interest in the subject matter, I was surprised to my level of engagement in Dark Horse, the human element of the film really hitting home with me. Had the movie been approached by someone with a more encompassing documentary eye, this film could have excelled more than it did, but the amateurish look and the very flat and almost downer ending to the film really make it something I couldn’t rightfully recommend and feel good about it. Inspiring but painted into a corner, Dark Horse only gets a two and a half out of five from me.