The trick to winning the race, advises a wise Paddy Payne to daughter Michelle, is to go a steady pace until finding safe passage to make a triumphant gallop to victory at the end of the end. Rachel Griffiths, here bringing Michelle Payne’s legendary and inspiring 2015 Melbourne Cup win to the screen, has wisely applied the same tactic to “Ride Like A Girl”. With a measured, grounded pace and welcome restraint, the first-time feature director crafts the ultimate love letter to the Payne family, horse racing and the single-parent household.
With a script as delicately handled as the horses would’ve been on set, Griffiths trots out a warm, effortlessly-inspiring and extremely moving film that is bereft of much of the gloss and Parmesan films of a similar ilk usually encompass. The “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Hacksaw Ridge” actress, having spent enough time on effective television dramas and features, is smart enough to know a winning story, with capable actors, is enough to both compel and touch. Here, she lets the story and structure work the audience alone, and it’s a winning move.
Against all odds, and despite physical and emotional battles that would likely cancel-out the grand plans of most, Michelle Payne (Teresa Palmer) went on to not only snare a place in the horse race that stops the nation, but win it. Flashback we do, to see how she did it…
The youngest of ten, the gutsy and ambitious Victorian defied all – even her concerned widow father (Sam Neill), at one stage – to keep her dream on track.
In a lesser filmmaker’s mitts, the libretto for “Ride Like The Girl” could’ve easily been turned into an overblown, not at all affecting hour-and-half history-lesson saved only by pop-enthused montages and slick choreography, in Griffith’s hands, it’s a glorious thing that gets the heart pumping, the eyes watering and the mouth curving.
Under ostensible direction to play it both true and grounded, sometimes letting a lack of words say more than too many, Griffiths produces top-notch performances from a wonderfully picked cast. Teresa Palmer, in a career-skyrocketing turn, is a revelation here as she emotionally and physically embodies the part of Payne. So too is the always-dependable Sam Neill, in what’s unarguably one of his most immersive and touching performances in screen in quite some time. And while Sullivan Stapleton, Genevieve Morris, and Sophia Forrest, to name but a few, offer weighty support, it’s Stevie Payne – playing himself – who gives the most impressive turn of the support cast – this is more than an admirable turn, it’s an award worthy performance.
Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie deserve equal praise, penning less a screenplay and more a time machine – one that transplants the audience into the most significant periods of Michelle Payne’s life.
“Ride Like A Girl” isn’t just up there with John G.Avildsen’s “Rocky” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money” as a winning sports drama that ticks all the boxes, but an incredible film in its own right – a feature deserving of unshackling from any genre, worthy instead of being categorized as, quite simply, one of the best Australian films in decades.