You don’t have to know much about horse racing to enjoy The Cup. Sure, it features a lot of racing’s big names but at its core it’s very much like any other sporting movie – the story a hero who overcomes a personal conflict in order to achieve greatness.
In this case, the man at the centre of it all is Australian jockey Damien Oliver.
Damien and his brother Jason were among the most prolific jockeys in Australia – it was in their blood. Their father, who was also a jockey, died in a tragic horse fall and in 2002 Jason would meet the same fate. One week before the Melbourne Cup, Jason was crushed by the horse he was riding and died.
The Cup explores Damien’s relationship with his brother before the accident and how he copes with the loss. Ultimately, it deals with Damien’s decision of whether to quit riding avoid avoid the same fate as his father and brother, or continue doing what he loves and was born to do.
Stephen Curry escapes the “Aussie larrikin” role for something much deeper, tackling the heavy emotional toll of Damien. While his performance is effective, it’s sometimes hard to stop thinking about Dale Kerrigan finally putting those jousting sticks to good use.
In his first feature role, Daniel MacPherson is strong as the competitive yet supportive older brother Jason. His own self-confidence transfers well onscreen, as it’s a defining trait of the character.
To complete the line-up, Shaun Micallef tries acting serious as trainer Lee Freedman, Martin Sacks as Damien’s manager Neil Pinner, and Bill Hunter in his last role, playing the iconic horseman Bart Cummings.
As expected, Irishman Brendan Gleeson shines as Damien’s confident trainer Dermot Wild. I don’t think I could hate him in any role after watching The Guard, but his performance seems so effortless as Wild – showing compassion and support for his traumatised jockey, while nervously preparing to prove something to a nation.
Where director Simon Wincer shines is in capturing the thrill of horse racing, and especially the national hype that surrounds the Melbourne Cup. Even though we all know the story, that final horse race is still genuinely suspenseful and exciting to watch.
Where he often falls short is by including many unnecessary sporting clichés, which we have seen so many times before. There are black & white flashbacks to moments in the boys’ childhood, plenty of emotional scores, slow motion used to capture both heartbreak and triumph, and even a training montage.
All in all, The Cup is a heart-warming tale of Australian tragedy and triumph, and had it been released in 1980, we probably would have studied it at school along with The Club and Breaker Morant. However, while the actual story of the Oliver family is truly incredible, Wincer’s portrayal paints it in exactly the same fashion as so many sports movies before it.
The Cup opens in theatres Thursday 13 October, 2011.