The Blind Side proved that inspirational sports movies can star and attract women, and thus bank really serious coinage.
On its heels comes this solid, stolid but periodically pulse-quickening biopic about Penny Chenery (Diane Lane as a very steely magnolia), the Southern housewife who backed ’70s US wonder-horse Secretariat all the way.
Director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) serves up a good-looking, morally uplifting account of how Chenery, aided by flamboyant trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), worked to save her dying father’s horse-breeding business by racing a miraculously strong red colt that the racing old-guard refused to take seriously.
US critics have scrapped over the film’s Christian trappings of gospel songs and gusty readings from the Book of Job. Yet the real issue is its plodding progress from foal to national fame, which feels like living Secretariat’s three-year career in real time.
One-note characterisations, meanwhile, give it a wilfully old-fashioned vibe. With the upright Mrs Chenery grooming her horse with loyal black groom Eddie (Nelsan Ellis) to ‘Oh Happy Day’, and her needling competition with Hispanic rival trainer Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano), the movie seems made in the ’70s, not just set then.
Lane’s set-jawed performance is admirably determined, but lacks the mamma-grizzly sass with which Sandra Bullock juiced up The Blind Side.
As for Malkovich, his eccentric Laurin is pure bombast, topped with a succession of comedy hats.
In short, this doesn’t belong in the same winners’ circle as National Velvet, and even Seabiscuit beats it by a nose.
But when the horses hit the track, the thunderous, brilliantly edited racing sequences (complete with turf-cam) give the film a pace and verve that makes watching Secretariat’s 1973 bid for the three-race Triple Crown an edge-of-seat experience.
History tells you he’s a winner, but the film deftly recreates the glorious uncertainty of every race.