By Mandi Kim
I know Clint saw this at the very beginning of the year, and while I’m not sure what he thought of the film at the time, I’m pretty confident he’s likely all but forgotten it.
In any other country a film about a jockey would probably be a comedy, with size jokes and funny racing outfits, but in Australia, we take our horse racing seriously, particularly when it’s based on a true story.
“The Cup”, the latest ‘arouse the Aussie spirit’ flick from successful export Simon Wincer (“Phar Lap”, “Free Willy”), follows award winning jockey Damien Oliver (Stephen Curry, very well cast), in the month leading up to the 2002 Melbourne Cup.
Now let’s just talk about the ‘Cup’, as in the race, for a moment. Australians know this as The Race That Stops the Nation, and while you can probably chalk this up to overzealous marketing…it’s actually not. People around the country literally stop what ever they are doing to watch the race, place bets, wear funny hats to work, and in Melbourne itself, it is a tradition of dressing up, an excuse to drink before midday, and the only time it is socially acceptable to walk around at 3pm with your high heels in your hand instead of on your feet. Okay, it is never socially acceptable to do that, but we do anyway. You’re even allowed to make love to the debris adorning a grimy city gutter… I think.
The Melbourne Cup is a big deal, and for jockey’s, it’s the Grand Slam.
Wincer’s film isn’t so much about the big race, as it is one of it’s big entrants – Damien Oliver.
Baed par-for-par with what really down, the film goes a little like this : When Damien’s Australian horse trainer is without a starting horse to compete in race that year, Damien looks overseas to Irish trainer Dermot Weld (Brenden Gleeson) to provide a throroughbred, a wild card that has not even qualified called Media Puzzle, much to the chagrin of his patriotic brother Jason (Daniel MacPherson, the former soap star in his first feature).
But this is not the real confilict of the film.
Jason and Damien are from a racing family, and were tragically left without a father when he was killed in a horse racing accident when they were children.
And yep, that works. Their relationship is charming and easygoing, and a real highlight of the film. For those that know the story, it is hard to watch these scenes, as one week before the Melbourne Cup, Jason, himself a jockey long outshone by his younger brother, is killed in a horse racing accident in Perth.
Firstly, to what works : There are no villains in this film, which is refreshing, and the scenes around Jason’s death are very moving. Damien is confronted by the danger of his chosen sport, scared loved ones, and questions his confidence and dedication while greiving for his brother. Where Hollywood may have made the Middle East and Irish foreigners invading this Australian race the enemy, they are just competition, with everyone aiming for the same goal – to win the Melbourne Cup. Stephen Curry is fantastic as Damien, and Irish icon Brendan Gleeson is a standout, elevating the film whenever he is on screen with his gravelly voice and faith that only Damien can ride Media Puzzle to victory, so long as his heart is in it.
This is a high budget film by Australian standards, coming in a $15 million, but by overseas standards this isn’t much, and sadly, in the production values it shows – it all looks a little Hallmark and, I have to say, plays a little Sunday night Jennifer Love Hewitt Christian hour too. While the overall story is great, and many Australians will get a kick out of the enormous amount of media cameos that are included (there’s a darn lot of ’em!), the scene transitions and flashbacks are often clunky, the score is a bit overbearing in the emotional scenes, and the dialogue and acting is very stiff at times. It’s just not as rousing or as epic a film as it needed to be. It feels… too small.
Damien Oliver’s story is inspirational, and it embodies a distinctly Australian flavour that will make it enjoyable for many Australians and racing fans, but the somewhat dated execution will limit its appeal. Still, see it for a nice, inoffensive family-friendly story that’s based on a really beautiful true occurence and to see Stephen Curry in what’s inarguably going to be his belated breakout role.