When it comes to real-life, sometimes great or peculiar animals make more interesting subjects for films than humans with the same qualities. There’s a level of intrigue in the unsaid and the unknown that just can’t be captured with a human subject. But bringing the story of a great animal, particularly one world-renowned in the history books, to life is a big responsibility.
Penny Tweedy (Lane) is a 1960's housewife, whose life revolves around her husband (Walsh) and children. Having grown up on a horse farm in Viginia, she is making a life for herself and her family, until a phonecall from home changes the life that she knows. With the death of her mother and ailing health of her father, the family stables are in danger of going under. And when Penny visits to put things in order she finds herself drawn to the life she knew as a girl, wanting to keep the family business afloat. But with horse-racing circles dominated by men she has her work cut out for her. Still she perseveres and, after seeing potential in a foal at the yard, enlists the help of mad-cap horse-trainer Lucien Laurin (Malkovich), rescuing him from his miserable retirement.
The foal proves to be strong, growing into a feisty colt with plenty of heart for the track and potential to earn big cash. And as she gets sucked into the game of horse-racing, Penny begins to find it hard to split her time between her family and her new job, causing herself some heartbreak along the way. But, as with every triumph-over-the-odds story, she is not without great friends in her father's secretary Miss Hamm (Martindale) and stable-hand Eddie (Ellis), who also want to see the horse, now named Secretariat, reach his true potential.
Anyone who follows horse-racing will know the rest of the story. Turns out Secretariat was a great horse, later being named Horse of the Year and vying for the Triple Crown of horse-racing glory, which is rarely attained.
This movie chooses to focus on the people, rather than the prize-winner and loses some of its charm in doing so. The horse himself is presented as extremely clever, responding to his carers and even posing for photos, but we don’t get enough of a sense of him for this to be his story. Instead we see the human sacrifice and endeavour that catapults any champion to the top, watching the people around him do their thing. Lane tackles her leading role well but it is Malkovich who, once again, steals the show here. He is amusing in new ways, as the slightly bonkers trainer with too much to say for himself.
As these kinds of movies go, this will neither be the best nor the worst that you’ll see but, with so much doom and gloom about at the moment, maybe a feel-good story is in order.