Next weekend, all things being equal, sees one of the two biggest events in the UK horse racing calendar. Whether spectators will flock to Epsom for this year’s Derby has yet to be decided but, in the meantime and in the comfort of our own homes, we have a chance to see inside the race that brings Australia to a standstill every November. It’s The Melbourne Cup, their equivalent of The Derby, and which had its first female winner in 2015, its 155th year.
That winner was Michelle Payne and her triumph over adversity story is at the centre of Ride Like A Girl. The youngest of ten children raised by widowed father and legendary trainer Paddy (Sam Neill), Michelle (Teresa Palmer) is single minded about making it as a jockey, despite being shut out of what is most definitely a men’s club. She claws her way up, starts getting better rides and, just as she celebrates a significant win, a serious head injury brings her career to an abrupt halt. Her mental and physical recovery is tough, but when brother Stevie (played by the real Stevie Payne) starts training a horse with a chequered medical history, she finds her reason for riding again and sets her sights on the ultimate prize – The Melbourne Cup.
Sport has an unerring ability to throw up heart warming stories and they’re all the more moving when they’re about a unique partnership between a human and an animal, both of whom have faced sizeable obstacles. Bob Champion and Aldaniti winning The Grand National back in 1981 was turned into Champions just three years later and, in truth, the parallels between the two stories are apparent from early on. But never underestimate the power of this style of inspirational true life tale to bring the proverbial lump to your throat. You’d have to be very hard hearted not to gulp just a little.
Ride Like A Girl doesn’t do anything especially different, nor does it set out to. The sexism faced by Michelle in the racing industry adds a contemporary angle to the narrative, while her loving but fractious relationship with her father prevents the portrayal of the family drifting too close to Waltons territory. Her relationship with brother Stevie, who has Downs Syndrome, is especially touching and the real Stevie is hugely endearing as himself, warm and friendly but a definite chip off the old block when it comes to being a natural with horses. In a role that asks a lot less of her than Berlin Syndrome, Teresa Palmer gives Michelle all the courage and determination she needs, without making her too saintly. But the acting standard is set, inevitably, by the gruff yet twinkling charms of Sam Neill whose presence is most definitely missed when he’s off the screen half way through the film while Michelle is in the spotlight.
With a warm, uplifting tone that manages to stay the right side of sentiment, Ride Like A Girl is perfectly timed reassuring, spirit-lifting entertainment. And we still need them – and how! – even if things do seem to be edging closer to something vaguely approaching normality.
Drama | Cert: PG| Lionsgate | Digital, 26 June 2020 | Dir. Rachel Griffiths | Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill, Stevie Payne, Anneliese Apps, Sullivan Stapleton.