Dream Horse: the true story of a Welsh village that raised a racehorse
Twenty years ago, one woman convinced her neighbours to buy, rear and train a thoroughbred racehorse, Dream Alliance. Now their unlikely story is relived in a feelgood film
Ever felt stirred by a warm sense of connection to the world around you? Well, the Welsh have a word for that precious sensation: “hwyl”, sounding a little like “hoyle” to an English ear. And, as cinema projectors whirr into action again, there is one film above all others that aims to bring you this very emotion.
Out on 4 June, Dream Horse is the true story of the extraordinary racehorse that brought a group of impoverished Welsh owners together and offered them fresh hope against all imaginable odds. And the concept of hwyl, a kind of mystic combination of those two more famous buzz words, the Irish “craic” and the Danish “hygge”, is right at the film’s core, according to director Euros Lyn.
“Its meaning is described in the film, but actually there are lots of uses. If you are a Welsh speaker, you ask people in the morning how the hwyl is. Or you use it if someone is clearly enjoying few drinks at the bar. It is a sort of “life force”, and the characters in Dream Horse are certainly on that kind of adventure. So it’s the right word and it is also what we want for our audiences.”
Starring Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Joanna Page and Owen Teale, the film tells of an inexperienced syndicate in the valleys of South Wales who fund the training of a thoroughbred, Dream Alliance, that goes on to beat the best on the race course.
Twenty years ago, in the former mining village of Cefn Fforest, Jan Vokes was looking for a reason to get up in the morning that might prove more compelling than either of her jobs at the supermarket or behind the bar at the local working men’s club, and ideally also more satisfying than making dinner every evening for her unemployed husband, Brian. She had already bred rabbits, whippets and racing pigeons and now something more substantial had taken her fancy. After scouring the racehorse breeding journals, Vokes bought a mare, stabling her in a shed on an allotment. Then, with her retirement fund and the support of 23 neighbours and friends who all put in a little cash, a promising foal was born, following an expensive visit to a stud farm.
The Australian actress Collette, best known for Muriel’s Wedding, The Sixth Sense and Little Miss Sunshine, plays Vokes. “It’s a funny thing seeing someone as you on the screen,” Vokes said this weekend, after a special screening in her home town. “It was strange, but I never imagined they would get it all so well, even the accents. I really enjoyed it, and now I want youngsters to see it especially; to show them you can follow a dream. Youngsters, along with working-class people, have had such a tough time through the last year. They’ve suffered the most.”
Behind the camera, Lyn, a welshman, held back from painting a picture postcard image of the valleys and, although there are spectacular racing scenes, the town, ordinary homes and meeting halls are faithfully rendered as shabby and dark.
“Much of the valleys is ugly-beautiful really. You’ve got the great drama of the hills around you, and then across it there is a line of pylons with some heap of slag from an old tip in front,” he said.
The premium he set on authenticity meant getting the right wallpaper and even posing his actors to match to photographs on show in the Vokes’s real home. And the crucial racing scenes had to convince.
“We divided up every race into two furlong sections and had three sets of 10 thoroughbreds,” explained Lyn, who was determined to avoid the impression of jockeys holding a horse back from a win.
“It’s a question of filming different bits and then making it come together in the editing, and when sound is added later.”
The Dream Alliance story had already been told in an award-winning documentary, Dark Horse, but writer Neil McKay “went back to first base”, said Lyn. “Neil did a deep dive and spent a long time with the real people involved. They’ve all had such varied lives, including Howard Davies, the accountant that Damian plays, we knew we had to leave some of it out.”
Lewis, who lost his wife, the acclaimed actress Helen McCrory, to cancer earlier this year, is half Welsh and had been keen to work closer to home after starring in the flashy American hedge-fund drama, Billions, for Sky. “It was perfect timing,” the actor has said. “I like its almost naive warmth and generosity of spirit, compared to the Billions world, which is all about transactional favour-trading.”
“It was wonderful to have Damian as Howard,” said Lyn. “His father is Welsh and he has a brilliant ear anyway.”
The performance Collette gives as Vokes may also surprise audiences. “Jan has a real strength and determination, but also vulnerability, and I immediately thought of Toni,” said Lyn. “My friend, the writer Jack Thorne, asked her to read the script, which is often the hardest bit with a big star, as there are so many gatekeepers.” Lyn knew Collette had already played many different nationalities and, luckily, she loved McKay’s screenplay.
On set, the Welsh actor and Game of Thrones star Teale, who plays Brian Vokes, was there to boost her confidence. “Toni got off the plane and straight into this bit of Welsh culture. I’d worked with her before and I knew she is intense and focused. She worked with a brilliant voice coach for some of the technical stuff, but she learned quickly and I soon believed in her as my wife, this fighter who has to tackle not just the prejudiced world of horse racing but also the chauvinism of her own background.”
Like Lyn, Teale feels the word “hwyl” sums up the mood of the film. “It is a wonderful Welsh idea, like ‘camaraderie’, but deeper than that. We use it when we sing together in Wales, in a choir, at the rugby or in the pub. When we showed the film at the Sundance festival last year, the whole cinema audience stood up and cheered the horse on. That was hwyl, but the idea isn’t out in popular culture yet. Some may know the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’, often translated as homesickness. It’s more than that, though. It’s for when you feel out of place and so awkward that a gap opens up between you and the rest of the world. Hwyl is the opposite.”
An antidote to the dislocations of the last year, the film should encourage people to look for a purpose, Lyn hopes. “It is certainly not about fame and fortune. It’s about that point we can all come to where you wonder what your life really means. It often comes with a change of circumstance that throws things into sharp relief. The pandemic did that.”
For the director, the soft, welcoming spirit, typical of the valleys, is there in the real Brian, and also in Teale’s performance. “When I first met Brian,” said Teale this weekend, “he burst into tears because they had just lost a new foal in an arson attack. There was a gentleness in him I was moved by. He has had to get used to the fact he is not the same big, powerful man he was in his youth.”
Today, the Vokeses live in the same house in Cefn Fforest and Jan still has two jobs. Dream Alliance’s wins netted just £1,430 each for the syndicate members, but it was never about the money. A new foal, Phoenix Dream, carries Jan’s hopes now. “We called her that because she looks like Dream Alliance, although she is no relation,” she said. “She has three white feet, where Dream had four. I don’t know if people around here have many expectations, but then they never did with Dream!”
It seems possible that “feelgood”, as in “feelgood movie”, may soon be spelt “hwyl”.
Dream Horse is in cinemas from 4 June