Movies: Secretariat * * *
(G, General release)
When Disney approaches Seabiscuit territory, the wise viewer quakes. If that Oscar-winning 2003 racehorse saga went heavy on the sentiment, Disney can always be relied upon to go further, and so it proves in this mushy but strangely entertaining equestrian biopic.
Secretariat was one of the most famous nags that ever lived, and a record-breaking American champion. However, the horse they called 'Big Red' might never have been discovered at all if it hadn't been for a very determined Denver housewife.
Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, a prim and proper 60s hausfrau who is just serving up dinner for her husband and children when she receives the kind of phone call everyone dreads. Her mother has died, and when Penny returns to the Virginia farm she grew up on she finds her beloved father much diminished. Christopher Chenery was once a thoroughbred horse breeder of note, but now he's in poor shape and so are his stables. Penny's only sibling wants to sell the place, but she has always had a love of horses and won't hear of it.
Instead, she gambles all on the promising foal of two respected thoroughbreds. From the moment Secretariat emerges from his mother's womb he's lively, headstrong and loves to run. Penny sees potential, and hires an eccentric French Canadian trainer called Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to nurture him. But the farm's creditors are hovering, and Penny's husband John is not best pleased at how much time she's spending away from home. But Penny believes that Secretariat is capable of big things -- even a Triple Crown.
In many ways this Randall Wallace film fluffs what might have been a really strong story. Penny Chenery really was an extraordinary woman, a maverick in a male-dominated world, but Secretariat is so intent on keeping the fun clean that she's reduced to a 'feisty' stereotype. Ms Lane, a very beautiful woman, is slightly miscast here, and left hanging at vital moments by a clumsy script. This being a Disney film, Secretariat eyes up his rival in the traps and is presented as a horse who knows what the plan is.
Still more outrageous is Mr Malkovich, who misses no opportunity to undermine the happy mood. As ever, he's also wildly entertaining. So, oddly -- despite some very dodgy politics, racial and otherwise -- is this film. And the thing it does brilliantly is give you a sense of how simultaneously thrilling and terrifying it must be to be sat atop one of these magnificent beasts in full flight.