Cup tri­umph on right track

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - INSIDER | WEDDINGS & BABIES -

Rachel Grif­fiths di­rects this hand­some biopic about Mel­bourne Cup-win­ning jockey Michelle Payne with a steady hand — and one eye on the fin­ish line.

The lack of sen­ti­men­tal­ity with which the ac­tor-turned­di­rec­tor re­counts Payne’s tri­umph over ex­tra­or­di­nary odds will no doubt meet the ap­proval of its gutsy sub­ject, but it also serves its au­di­ence well.

Grif­fiths’ clear in­ten­tion, with this in­spi­ra­tional drama, is to pay trib­ute to Payne’s un­par­al­leled ath­letic feat, but in so do­ing, she doesn’t gloss over the con­tro­ver­sies — such as the jockey’s ten­dency to test her lim­its on the track (which re­sulted in an­other, 15-meet­ing sus­pen­sion for care­less rid­ing ear­lier this year).

The first-time fea­ture di­rec­tor also gives an ap­pro­pri­ate weight to Payne’s painful rift with her father, Paddy (Sam Neill), but this is con­veyed as much by what is left un­said as it is in the ac­tual di­a­logue, and that seems en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate for the char­ac­ters in­volved.

All of which adds up to a con­tem­po­rary piece of myth-mak­ing, told in an au­then­tic Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar. Cer­tain key scenes, such as the Christmas pud­ding in­ci­dent, in which Payne and her brother Ste­vie pol­ish off said item un­der the din­ing room ta­ble while the rest of the fam­ily is eat­ing their lunch — feel like the stuff of fam­ily leg­end.

Ride Like A Girl doc­u­ments Payne’s story from her rough­but-lov­ing child­hood on a farm near Bal­larat, in cen­tral Vic­to­ria, through to the his­toric day on which she be­came the first fe­male jockey ever to win a Mel­bourne Cup — at 100-1 odds — on Prince Of Pen­zance.

The film chron­i­cles Michelle’s early life in the tu­mul­tuous Payne house­hold — her mother died in a car ac­ci­dent when she was six months old, leav­ing be­hind 10 chil­dren, all of whom ap­pear to have in­her­ited their father’s love of horses.

Com­ing from a fam­ily of jock­eys, it’s a nat­u­ral choice for Payne to fol­low in her older sib­lings’ foot­steps. But when her old­est sis­ter, Brigid, dies af­ter a fall, Paddy be­comes more cau­tious. And so his im­pa­tient youngest daugh­ter de­cides to go it alone, only to be ig­nored by the other train­ers.

She spends many cold, dark, early morn­ings wait­ing in vain for a ride be­fore fi­nally fast-talk­ing her way into the sad­dle. Ride Like A Girl por­trays Payne as plucky, de­ter­mined and, well, driven to the point of ob­ses­sion. Teresa Palmer steps into her char­ac­ter’s stir­rups with courage and com­mit­ment.

She is sup­ported by Payne’s real-life brother, Ste­vie, who has Down syn­drome — no other ac­tor could have done the role jus­tice.

It would be hard to go wrong with this story, but Grif­fiths gives it just the right amount of rein.

OPENS THURS­DAY

Teresa Palmer as Michelle Payne in Ride Like A Girl and (above) in a scene with Ste­vie Payne who plays him­self.

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