Director: Simon Wincer
Stars: Stephen Curry, Daniel MacPherson, Brendan Gleeson
First viewing, via DVD
Whether you see it as the race that stops the nation or the race that divides the nation (there’s valid argument for both), and whether it’s the gravitational centre of your day, a chance to go all Caligula, or simply background noise, there’s no shaking that the Melbourne Cup’s a big deal. For non-local readers: it’s a major horse racing event (along the lines of the Kentucky Derby or Royal Ascot) that’s been running in Australia for over 150 years. It’s such as big deal that it’s somewhat surprising the Cup hasn’t featured too prominently in local films, though the prohibitive cost of recreating the event is obviously a factor. Crime comedies Horseplay and The Hard Word (both 2002) spring to mind as recent films to feature the event, albeit in a supporting role. Simon Wincer’s 1983 film Phar Lap, about the titular champion race horse, is probably the best-known film to feature the event. It’s fitting, then, that Wincer takes directing reins of 2011’s The Cup.
The film is based on the true story of Damien Oliver (played by Stephen Curry), a celebrated jockey hailing from a racing family: his brother Jason (Daniel MacPherson) is also a jockey, as was his father, who died in a riding accident when Damien was a child. In 2002 Damien is hired to ride an Irish champion horse in the Melbourne Cup, under the guidance of trainer Dermot Weld (Brendan Gleeson). But after a tragic accident claims his brother’s life, Damien loses his confidence in the saddle and must reclaim it before race day. You can probably see where this is going…
I’ll fess up completely to my mercenary decision to schedule this review for Cup week: if this site was actually selling something beyond the curation of local films, you might even call it clickbait. In my defence, I also considered posting a review of Hugh Keays-Byrne’s counter-culture action film Resistance for Guy Fawkes Day, but opted to wait til later. I also considered posting about an Australian horror film for Halloween, but opted not to because, well…
Mercenary scheduling aside, I was curious to see The Cup because director Simon Wincer fascinates me. He directed the Ozploitation gems Snapshot and Harlequin early in his career, and would later direct such prestige projects as Phar Lap, The Lighthorsemen, and the miniseries Lonesome Dove, but is best known for generic, populist, straight-down-the-middle fare like Free Willy, Operation Dumbo Drop, The Phantom, and one of Paul Hogan’s best films (Lightning Jack) and worst (Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles). Toss in three (!) Tom Selleck Westerns (Quigley Down Under, Crossfire Trail, Monte Walsh) and the somewhat inexplicable Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and that’s an eclectic but workmanlike CV.
When I say The Cup is consistent with Wincer’s wider filmography in being efficient, workmanlike filmmaking, I don’t mean that as faint praise or a backhanded compliment. Whilst auteurism is always a sexier proposition, wrestling a coherent vision of any sort onto the screen is no miniscule feat, and Wincer’s been at it for over 35 years. The Cup is solid filmmaking, not to mention handsomely mounted: unlike a lot of other local films, there’s some serious money on screen, as befitting a story that spans continents and major cultural events. The film also features an innately likeable cast doing likeable work: Curry’s a sympathetic lead, MacPherson makes a good impression with limited screentime, and folks like Trish Oliver, Shaun Micalef, Martin Sacks, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Bill Hunter, and Phar Lap’s own Tom Burlinson round out the ensemble. Plus there’s import Brendan Gleeson who, whilst not necessarily stretched by the material, aces it as he has each and every role since Braveheart.
Befitting its polished package, the film was modestly successful, earning just a hair under 2.75 million dollars locally – no blockbuster, but respectable by Australian film standards – and scraping its way into the ranks of the 100 most successful Australian films at the local box office (one spot below Sirens, spotlighted here two weeks ago). On researching the film, I was genuinely surprised to find it received a lukewarm critical reaction, rating only 29 on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer; truth be told, the film struck me as too innocuous to inspire any kind of animosity.
And yet, there’s no getting around the fact that The Cup is very, very formulaic, erring closely to the classic Hollywood sports film triumph > tragedy > triumph (or riches > rags > riches) formula (see Rocky II and III as exemplars). Of course, it’s based on a true story that already mirrors that trajectory somewhat, and I don’t want to diminish the real-life tragedy or triumph underpinning the story. But Wincer and co-writer Eric O’Keefe hammer the true story so thoroughly into formulaic shape that most plot and emotional beats are telegraphed well in advance, making for a predictable, familiar viewing experience. Moreover, as director, Wincer engineers some moments of blatant (albeit skilful) emotional manipulation. In an interview with Slash Film, he states:
what I look for when I’m editing a film is those moments when all the elements of performance, sound effects, music and cinematography combine to send a shiver up your spine. You really try to get those key moments, you know? … Like the whale [in Free Willy] leaping over the wall. Finding those moments and it’s the sum total of everything that’s come before. It’s about mountains and valleys. Putting a character in a deep valley and then watching them climb out of it and that, to me, is what you have to deliver.
There’s no doubt Wincer has a knack for pinpointing those moments and orchestrating and amplifying them. However, a little restraint can also go a long way…
In summary: The Cup is slick entertainment from one of Australia’s best populist journeymen, but it’s also thoroughly familiar fare, with a sap streak as wide as Flemington Racecourse.
Next week: From populist filmmaking with broad appeal to its textbook opposite… Down Under Flix tackles its second Paul Cox film, and quite a curio: The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001).