Cham­pion the un­der­horse

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

SEC­RE­TAR­IAT WAS a race­horse that won the Ken­tucky Derby in 1973. Sec­re­tari­at­gate is a spat be­tween An­drew O’He­hir and Roger Ebert, two of film crit­i­cism’s most learned gentle­men.

O’He­hir con­tends that this sug­ar­coated Dis­ney por­trait of 1970s Amer­ica, based on achieve­ments of the tit­u­lar an­i­mal, is sin­is­ter and ret­ro­grade – “a work of creepy, half-hi­lar­i­ous mas­ter­race pro­pa­ganda al­most wor­thy of Leni Riefen­stahl.” Ebert has pointed out that a horse re­ally has very lit­tle con­cep­tion of Ni­et­zschean ideals.

They’re both right. Sec­re­tar­iat is such a creaky, old-fash­ioned thing it’s im­pos­si­ble not to love and hate it in equal mea­sure. A grand, glossy un­der­dog (un­der­horse?) drama, it stars Diane Lane as Penny Chen­ery, a house­wife who is forced to take over her ail­ing fa­ther’s Vir­ginia sta­bles. Aided and abet­ted by an os­ten­ta­tious, im­pos­si­bly dif­fi­cult French trainer (John Malkovich) and one mean, ch­est­nut-coloured


year­ling, the re­luc­tant lady breeder has to aim for a mir­a­cle if she wants to Save The Farm.

An odd throw­back, Sec­re­tar­iat looks and sounds like a pres­tige pic­ture from the early 1970s it de­picts, an as­pect that is both charm­ing and mad­den­ingly un­re­con­structed. It’s hard not to wince when the film trots out hip­pies that make the Scooby Doo gang look like the Man­son Fam­ily. Mean­while, the happy-clappy, Je­sus-lov­ing African-Amer­i­can sta­ble hand (Nel­san El­lis) does ev­ery­thing but burst into Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

Our hero­ine is equally prob­lem­atic; the nor­mally ef­fi­cient Diane Lane strug­gles with dull writ­ing and a char­ac­ter that, years be­fore Martha Gra­ham and Sarah Palin would rise to the chal­lenge, strikes a Ne­an­derthal blow for women’s lib with pearls. Can the real Chen­ery (cue oblig­a­tory cameo), who stood firm in a male­dom­i­nated in­dus­try, have been such a ringer for Jane Jet­son?

For all that, Sec­re­tar­iat sneaks up from the rear. Malkovich has an ab­so­lute ball with a role that de­mands flam­boy­ancy and shout­ing in French; a horse’s-eye view of the track con­veys the dangers in­her­ent to the pur­suit; the hand­somely mounted fin­ish line dra­mas cap­ture the un­bri­dled (sorry) ex­cite­ment ex­pe­ri­enced in the stands.

Ex­pect big strings and sport­ing vic­to­ries.

A horse of a fa­mil­iar colour: Diane Lane and Sec­re­tar­iat

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