For proof of how a gifted performer can lift a middling property to the next level, look no further than “Dream Horse,” a British racing drama arriving in theaters this week and on VOD June 11. The movie also makes a case for casting against type. In what may be the dowdiest, most plainspoken role of a mercurial career, Toni Collette plays Jan Vokes, a small-town Welsh grocery clerk who corralled 22 of her fellow villagers into buying a brood mare and raising a prize-winning racehorse. The film is based on a true story, and it’s awfully mild, but Collette gives it a humble yet passionate intensity that makes it stick to the ribs.
As written by Neil McKay and directed by Euros Lyn, “Dream Horse” fuses two hardy genres, the horse romance and the eccentric British folk comedy, while adding a dash of Welsh pride. Damian Lewis, usually seen as hard-charging, duplicitous types on TV’s “Billions” and “Homeland,” also gets a change of pace as Howard Davies, a mild-mannered accountant who similarly harbors dreams of racing glory. Going in with Jan, he forms a syndicate of wary but game townspeople to invest in . . . not even a horse but the idea of a horse.
The script conveniently telescopes time, and Dream Alliance is born and quickly becomes a 3-year-old with track potential only the villagers can see. Much of the humor and spirit of “Dream Horse” comes from the clash of the syndicate’s amateur enthusiasm with the laconic cynicism of a professional trainer (Nicholas Farrell) and the snooty poise of the equine toffs represented by Lord Avery (Peter Davison). By contrast, the good people of Blaenavon are a motley crew that includes loudmouths, armchair experts, little old ladies, and one tediously unfunny comic old-timer (Karl Johnson).
Can the horse run? Of course he can, or there’d be no movie, and the racing sequences at increasingly upscale venues are edited by Jamie Pearson to exciting and suspenseful effect. Elsewhere, “Dream Horse” strains to introduce conflict in what seems to have been a steady rise. Jan has to pull her affably useless but generally supportive husband, Brian (Owen Teale), out of a late-life funk, and Howard has to screw up the courage to tell his wife (Joanna Page) he even owns a horse, since an earlier attempt almost bankrupted the couple. A health crisis midway through threatens to spoil everything, but the movie resolves it quickly and offscreen.
In fact, as with all horse movies from “National Velvet” on, the horse is far less important than the character who loves it most. Jan Vokes is a wilted, defeated woman when “Dream Horse” begins, but her grand idea brings her back to life and her bond with the animal has the ferocity of despair. “I’ve never been me,” she tells Dream Alliance in one of their quiet stable moments, meaning she’s always been someone’s child, wife, or mother, until this horse came along to free her in some fundamental way. “Dream Horse” is a very nice movie, about very nice people, but nice is rarely enough, and thank goodness Toni Collette knows that.
Directed by Euros Lyn. Written by Neil McKay. Starring Toni Collette, Damian Lewis. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 113 minutes. PG (language and thematic elements)