Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Simon Wincer
Stars: Stephen Curry, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Hunter, Daniel McPherson, Martin Sacks, Shaun Micallef, Colleen Hewitt.
Horses have been an important part of director Simon Wincer’s oeuvre, with films like The Lighthorsemen to his credit. He has also worked on a number of westerns, like Lonesome Dove for US television. And he has delved into the glamorous world of horse racing before with Phar Lap, his marvelous drama about Australia’s greatest racehorse. Thus Wincer is a perfect fit for this stirring story about the 2002 Melbourne Cup. Damian Oliver’s triumph while riding Irish horse Media Puzzle was one of the more dramatic and memorable races of recent times.
The 2002 race was run just weeks after the Bali bombings, and the nation was still in shock over this callous act of terrorism on our doorstep. And popular jockey Oliver (played by Stephen Curry, from The Castle, etc) was riding Media Puzzle just days after the death of his brother Jason following a track accident. Oliver’s victory in overcoming great personal tragedy makes for a great story, and one that deserves to be told. If it wasn’t for the fact that it is based on actual events, one could be forgiven for thinking that The Cup was a succession of cliches and melodramatic piffle dreamt up by Hollywood scriptwriters.
Oliver’s personal journey is compelling stuff, and Wincer unashamedly aims for the tear ducts here. However, there are times when the pace flags and the cluttered narrative overwhelms the emotional substance of Oliver’s journey. Unfortunately the film is let down by the occasionally clunky, cliché-ridden screenplay from Wincer and co-writer US journalist Eric O’Keefe. As most of the characters depicted here are still alive, the script painstaking portrays them as essentially decent people.
Oliver comes from a horse racing family, as both his grandfather and father were champion jockeys in Western Australia. Oliver’s father was killed following an accident when he was just a young boy. In the week before the Melbourne Cup, his older brother Jason (Daniel McPherson, from tv’s Wild Boys, etc) is killed following a fall on a racetrack. Oliver finds himself questioning the ill fortune that has dogged his family, and has to make a difficult choice – to give up riding or jump back in the saddle to ride in the race.
There are tenuous attempts to link Oliver’s courage with that of footballer Jason McCartney, who survived the Bali bombing, which ultimately come across as slightly clumsy and overly manipulative. While Wincer lays on the pathos, Bruce Rowland’s swirling score is equally as manipulative.
Wincer certainly captures the excitement and glamour of the racing world, and that special atmosphere that surrounds the race that stops a nation. There is plenty of horse racing action, shot by veteran cinematographer David Burr, which adds verisimilitude. A number of local media and sporting personalities contribute brief cameos that adds further authenticity.
There are some very good performances. Curry does a great job as Oliver, and his sterling dramatic performance here is every bit as good as his award winning turn as Graham Kennedy in The King. Brendan Gleeson brings charm and warmth to his role as top Irish trainer Dermot Weld, although his performance here lacks the energy and brashness of other recent roles, like the brilliant black comedy The Guard.
Shaun Micallef is solid as trainer Lee Freedman, Oliver’s friend and mentor. Martin Sacks (from Blue Heelers, etc) doesn’t have much to do as Oliver’s manager Neil Pinner, but he brings his usual stoic presence to the role. Colleen Hewitt brings surprising emotional depth to her role as Damien’s grieving but supportive mother. And the late Bill Hunter makes his final screen appearance here with a walk on role as legendary trainer Bart Cummings, although he makes little impression.
The Cup is old-fashioned filmmaking, directed in workmanlike fashion by Wincer. Despite the fact that the outcome is known, Wincer has done a reasonable job of maintaining our interest throughout. It may not be a great film, but The Cup certainly has all the ingredients to be a crowd pleasing and very commercial film. In a solid marketing strategy it has been released to coincide with the Spring Racing Carnival, which should also boost its appeal.