Horse racing; it’s not usually a sport that we associate with the big screen, but there have been notable exceptions. Tobey Maguire in Seabiscuit, proved that they’re worth watching when they’re done well. So, after discovering that Disney had grabbed the reins of this story, Secretariat certainly seemed to have a lot of promise. But then, knowing that John Malkovich features in one of the starring roles further piqued interest, helping it earn over $60m in the box office worldwide.
Secretariat tells the story of Penny Chenery, played by Diane Lane of Judge Dredd fame, who heads home to the family farm and their stable of thoroughbred horses after her mother’s death. Her father, the legendary trainer Chris Cheney (Scott Glenn), ailing with dementia, cannot deal with the sporting operation, so Penny saddles up for the ride to revive the fortunes of the failing family business by aiming to take their star steed to the Kentucky Derby. The eyes of the world focus on the Kentucky Derby each year, whether they are watching Secretariat, the 2021 winner Medina Spirit or Smile Happy, rated as the favourite for the 2022 race in Ladbrokes horse racing odds. Whichever horse is out front, very few get a feature-length movie about them, which underlines the protagonist’s impact on racing across the country. Even fewer of those horses are able to challenge for the triple crown. That’s what the movie covers, and covers well.
As this movie is based around true-to-life events back in the early seventies, it’s interesting to see the portrayal of the sport, which was very much a male-dominated world back then. Short shrift was commonplace when it came to attitudes given towards women, but when Chenery persuades veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (Malkovich) to get on board, it gives her the chance to prove herself alongside one of the sport’s more respected figures. Malkovich is funny, albeit unintentionally, throughout the film; his attempts at a French-Canadian accent are amusing, to say the least, but it strangely almost adds a charm to the movie. In amongst the racing, which is very well shot, Chenery has to balance out her life as a mother and a wife back in Colorado, which brings its own troubles, and the way in which Randall Wallace has directed the movie certainly does the story justice and manages to keep the off-track action in the film cantering along at a good pace. Wallace is a well-established writer; his nomination at the Oscars for best screenwriter with Braveheart, as referenced by Forbes, proves that he certainly knows what it takes to tell a story and that shines through in Secretariat.
While the film is based around the equine protagonist, the star is Lane; she puts in a solid, believable performance and certainly does portray the image of a strong, determined, independent woman. Although some may argue it makes the movie more about her than it should be when the focus should be on the horse. Maybe we’re nit-picking a little too much, but for someone not really au-fait with racing, Secretariat is a typical film from the house of the mouse. It gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling that we’ve all become used to from a Disney movie. Is it the best movie ever? Absolutely not, but it’s one that is perfect for that lazy Sunday afternoon where you get the snacks out with the family and all get around the TV.
Specially penned for film-authority.com
by John Kirby