The Cup - movie reviewSuch is the cultural import of the Melbourne Cup that you could really pick any winner from any year and have the basis for a terrific film: from Rainlover to Vintage Crop to Makybe Diva, every year "The Cup" brings with it the sort of stories that make Bruce McAvaney and Craig Willis spout portentous sporting beat poetry and switches all the cameras to slow-mo.
There's just something about "the race that stops a nation"; I'm certainly not ashamed to tell you that each year I sit in front of the Cup transfixed as a curtain of tears descends upon my eyes.
So, from a filmmaking perspective, Media Puzzle's 2002 victory - OMG SPOILER ALERT! - offered an embarrassment of riches: for one it featured the triumphant return of Dermot Weld, who'd previously brought Vintage Crop to victory in 1993 as the first overseas-trained horse to win the race (see what I mean about each year having a story?). When you add the almost spiritually transformative quality the race had that year, three weeks after the Bali bombings, and that Damien Oliver was riding Media Puzzle mere days after the death of his brother Jason, it's not hard to see why it was 2002 that ended up being the Cup that became The Cup.
Directed by Simon Wincer, who presumably hopes we'll remember his work on Phar Lap and The Man From Snowy River rather than Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles, this is a workmanlike retelling of that year's considerable slice of Cup mythology.
If you're looking for spiritual insights into horse-training or visual poetry, re-rent The Black Stallion, but if you just want a decent, good-hearted film about the great race, you'll likely come away satisfied.
We know the drill at the outset: Damien Oliver (Stephen Curry) is beset, days before the cup, by the death of his brother Jason (Daniel MacPherson) in a mid-race fall. What makes up the guts of The Cup are the various interwoven threads that surrounded Oliver in those weeks.
Thus, we have Dermot Weld (Brendan Gleeson) and his team (Bobby Fox as Niall Phillips and Tom Burlinson as Dave Phillips) readying Media Puzzle and Vinnie Roe for the big race, while Saeed Bin Suroor (Harli Ames) does the same at Godolphin with Pugin.
In the Oliver camp, Damien is supported by his mother Pat (Colleen Hewitt), wife Trish (Jodi Gordon), manager Neil Pinner (Martin Sacks) and mentor Lee Freedman (Shaun Micallef).
Given we know exactly what is going to happen, it's a credit to Wincer and his cast that the lead-up to and eventual race are still quite exciting. A nifty blend of close-ups and what is, presumably, actual race footage means the running of the Cup strikes a chord.
There's a distinctly televisual quality to much of the film, however, most disappointingly the scenes including and directly following Jason's accident; they have the patina of a decent Sunday night telemovie when you long for something with more depth, or at least a bit of visual panache. There's excessive use of slow-motion and plenty of unimaginative shots of horses running.
(There are also some faintly bewildering scenes featuring Rodger Corser, daubed with some truly terrible "burns" makeup, as Jason McCartney, who acts as a sort of spiritual advisor to Oliver.)
The cast are for the most part very good; Gleeson and Ames' scenes together, including one encounter at the stables the night before the big race, have a lovely quality, and Gordon has a terrific stillness as Trish. Curry is dependable as ever as Oliver, even if he doesn't quite capture the jockey's trademark squint and squeak. Micallef is surprisingly good (and restrained, though everyone forgets he played straight very well on SeaChange) as Freedman. Sacks doesn't have much to do as Pinner but he brings his usual stoic appeal to the role.
From a technical perspective, proceedings are average: Bruce Rowland's score is prosaic in the extreme, and Eric O'Keefe's script is comprised of soundbites.
But it's fun playing local sports media spotto ("Ooh look, it's the Coodabeens!"), and the scenes of "ordinary Aussies" tuning in to the big race are effective, almost embarrassingly so since their level of cultural sophistication (think 'Marty Fields in a shearing shed' for the general vibe) is about on par with Australian Tourism Commission ads of the late-'80s. Plus, you know, PONIES.
With a story this strong, you really just have to add celluloid and stir, which is precisely what Wincer and his team have done: this is a simple, respectful yet relatively unadventurous version of a tale that has long since passed into Australian sporting legend. It feels like more of a reminder of that story - 'Hey, remember when Damien Oliver wore his brother's silks that year?' - than a film for the ages.
Ultimately, The Cup is an old fashioned entertainment, the sort of film that would once upon a time have been heralded with a chipper news reel voice-over or released on VHS with ads assuring you it was "The heartwarming story you'll want to watch again and again".
In other words, you probably won't want to watch it again and again, but given a single crack it's a good, honest flick.
It won't stop the nation, but it will while away a Saturday afternoon.
- three stars
The Cup opens nationally on October 13th.
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