Author: Howard Wright

JUST FOR A change, and perhaps as an antidote to all the worrying talk about COVID-19, a film review. Not just any film, but a racing film. And if, based on past experience, that thought strikes fear into the hearts of devoted fans and professionals, bear with me. It is true that the number of films with horse racing as their theme which have provided an authentic portrayal of the sport can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Seabiscuit is definitely an exception, and now Ride Like a Girl can be added to the short list. The story of the trials and tribulations that propelled Michelle Payne to international fame as the first female jockey to ride the winner of the Melbourne Cup, which she achieved at odds of 100/1 on Prince Of Penzance in 2015, was always destined to be made into a film, and here it is.

It has to be admitted from the outset that not every reviewer has shared that opinion. On the Guardian’s website, Luke Buckmaster ended his lukewarm report by saying: “Ride Like a Girl is based on a real story, but little about it rings true. I came out of the cinema feeling bloated, as if I’d wolfed down a chunk of cheddar the size of a car battery.” Perhaps he prefers a little more edge to his entertainment, or maybe he hankers after slices of social comment or ample doses of hand to hand action. If so, he was bound to be disappointed. Producer Richard Keddie and director Rachael Griffiths clearly set out to make a ‘feel good’ film that champions the underdog, and they have succeeded.

What’s more, they have captured the racing action better than in most similar exercises. Ride Like a Girl, which became Australia’s highest earning movie in 2019, was given a special showing at last month’s Asian Racing Conference in Cape Town, where Payne and Keddie were on hand to discuss the highlights of making the film. Coming from a non-racing background, Keddie said he was astounded by the personalities he encountered. “As a film maker, it is always about the characters,” he explained. “Ten kids whose mum has died; eight of the ten became jockeys and, like any incredible success or achievement, there is always a story behind it.” Taking a general theme, he went on: “You need to celebrate the wonderful world of racing and its characters. When Michelle won the Cup, it meant to the guys in the industry that the little person could still win.

The people in this industry work so hard, and they just love what they do.” As if to emphasise where other filmmakers have fallen short of true reality, Keddie said that capturing the racing action, the noise and sheer speed of a field of horses in full flight could only be achieved with great difficulty. 

“Noise is important for an audience,” he explained. “We thankfully found a very special 360 degree microphone and did a lot of filming with that, to capture that essence and the noise of a horse race.” Keddie originally intended to use five small cameras but soon found that did not work as the equipment failed to handle the jolting, and then hiring expensive drones had to be abandoned since they could not keep up with the horses. In the event, several giant cameras, as well as smaller ones held on sticks by the jockeys and controlled by the crew, captured the race footage. “I need the audience understand what Michelle did,” Keddie explained. “It needed be about jockeys, to understand the danger and brains a really good jockey needs.” The result is that authenticity shines through, as staged events using professional riders are interspersed with recorded coverage, culminating in the 2015 Melbourne Cup itself.

Horses aside, the story itself is largely played out by the veteran actor Sam Neill (of Jurassic Park fame) as Payne’s father Paddy, Teresa Palmer (less well known outside her native Australia) as Payne, and brother Stevie, who has Down’s syndrome, as himself. Asked about the idea of a film being made about her, Payne said: “Initially it was a bit overwhelming. A lot of people in my family were against a film being made about my life, about our life. When Stevie was set to play himself, however, it became a whole different story. It became such an inspirational film.” She added: “We all had to work from a very young age. When I was five, my brother rode in the Cup and it made me very determined to achieve my dream. It took me five or six years to get a ride in the Cup.

Eventually I did, and that experience helped me when I finally won. Racing is a male dominated sport and you have to fight your way through that. It helps that I am stubborn and determined by nature.” Ride Like a Girl could have been a diatribe about gender equality and sexism; it could have explored equine welfare issues, especially since Darren Weir, Prince Of Penzance’s trainer, has subsequently been beset by controversy. It was never intended to do so and is no worse off for that. Instead, it explores the relationship between the three main characters, and to a lesser extent between Payne, Weir and Prince Of Penzance. It’s definitely worth a trawl through the channels to discover how they pan out.

Howard Wright

Payne back in the big picture