There's a reason filmmakers from the United Kingdom keep making rousing dramas such as "Dream Horse" — they're virtually foolproof.
Whether it's an amateur chorus that becomes a sensation ("Military Wives"), newbie strippers who work up the nerve to take it all off ("The Full Monty"), off-hour musicians who make it to the Royal Albert Hall ("Brassed Off"), villagers who collaborate to win the lottery ("Waking Ned Devine") or friends who make a nudie calendar ("Calendar Girls"), this mini-genre always begins with an unlikely premise, proceeds to bickering people who realize they have more in common than they knew and ends with me bawling.
In "Dream Horse," the unlikely (but true) premise is that an impoverished Welsh woman, who knows next to nothing about horse racing, wants to raise a thoroughbred to compete in the world's most famous steeplechase race, the Grand National.
Jan (Toni Collette) barely supports her husband on a variety of jobs, so she assembles friends, customers and strangers in a "syndicate" to acquire and train Dream Alliance.
Among the colorful supporting characters is Siân Phillips, who is delightful as a widow and something of a mystery. But the key is Collette, who has been a movie star for decades but still vanishes seamlessly into working-class roles such as Jan.
Collette makes choices that feel both surprising and right. In the vigorously paced racing scenes, for instance, her Jan is often so excited that she can't bear to watch the race. That means director Euros Lyn needs to rely on other actors for the anxious/jubilant faces that help him create suspense while Dream Alliance is competing. But it also establishes the modesty and kindness of a character whose essence is revealed in a quiet moment at the stables. "Your mom would have been so proud of you," whispers Jan to Dream Alliance as she pets him.
It's a sentimental movie but Lyn makes sure it never feels sticky or maudlin. He does miss an opportunity to ask whether beautiful creatures should be trained to compete in a dangerous sport like steeplechase. But he gives us panoramas of Wales' green hills along with quirky details. And he makes sure it's always clear that it took a village to realize Jan's dreams.
Collette's Jan is enormously relatable, whether she's lying awake at night, listening to her husband's snores, or voicing something even us non-horse breeders think all the time: "I need something to look forward to when I get up in the morning."
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: PG, mild language.
Theater: Wide release.