‘Secretariat’ gallops to success

By Larissa Gula


Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Amanda Michalka

Director:… “Secretariat”

Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Amanda Michalka

Director: Randall Wallace

Walt Disney Pictures/Mayhem Pictures

Grade: B

Horseracing fans, take heed: “Secretariat” is more than just a day at the races.

Disney’s newest film is a surprising tour-de-force, with an impressive combination of good acting and deft cinematography that brings a horse galloping down the track to life.

The film is based on the true story of Secretariat, a thoroughbred racehorse who in 1973 became the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years and set track records that still stand today.

The story begins before the racehorse’s birth, when its owner-to-be, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), takes over her parents’ failing breeding farm upon the death of her mother. She tells her husband and children she’ll return home in a few days. Days, however, turn into weeks as she grows attached to the farm and feels obligated to solve its problems — despite her brother’s insistence to sell the entire property.

Soon, Chenery finds herself with a young colt the stable hands call Big Red, who has fostered a love for running early in life. A trainer named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), who has a fondness for odd clothing styles and just can’t retire, accompanies the horse.

At the same time her family is growing up and joining war protests without her, Chenery works hard to give Big Red, whose race name becomes Secretariat, a fighting chance to run his race.

The actors’ performances are quite strong throughout. For a film about a racehorse, the audience will be just as invested in the characters as the film’s myriad conflicts — conflicts which include keeping control of a breeding farm and letting go of past mistakes.

Lane presents Chenery as a powerful, free-willed housewife fighting for what she wants in both worlds — a compelling oddity given the male-dominated society she lives in. Malkovich brings most of the humor to the screen in his portrayal of an aging man with a curmudgeon attitude and an unusual sense of style.

The animals give their own laudable performances. Apparently a horse wrangler from “Seabiscuit” worked on this film, and he clearly has a talent for working with animals who seem to enjoy, in addition to racing down the track, prancing and posing for the camera.

The camerawork isn’t half bad, either. It’s impressive just how close the cameras get to these animals, especially considering horseracing has never been considered a safe sport. And if audiences don’t smile at a clumsy foal bumping into the camera — well, they just don’t know cute.

It’s actually hard to tell how many shots are of a real horse and how many required a prop for safety, so it’s safe to say the effects are decent, as well. Similarly, the clothing and sets create the sensation of fully inhabiting a different time and place.

The ending itself is perfect, as expected from a Disney film — but not just in terms of plot resolution. Watch the credits — the photos of real people and the surprise cameo ensure that this film sprints to the finish line.