Oh, I know I should know better. But “Secretariat” got to me, mostly because of the way director Randall Wallace filmed the races – and because of the heartfelt and mostly underplayed performances by the film’s principals.
I particularly like Diane Lane, who plays Penny Chenery, a Denver housewife who inherits the failing horse farm where her father has bred the colt that will become Secretariat, the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
The plot of “Secretariat” has less to do with the races themselves – again, we know the outcome – than with Penny’s struggle to keep the farm afloat long enough to get Secretariat into those marquee events. The odds are stacked against her – and she’s got a colorfully motley crew behind her.
Lane claims the screen as her own, despite having to share it with a scene-stealing John Malkovich. Playing eccentric horse trainer Lucien Laurin, he sports weird combinations of plaids, particularly in his colorful fedoras. Malkovich’s is the performance that seems pitched most obviously at Oscar voters, particularly the older ones. There’s nothing they like better than an edgy actor wedging himself into the mainstream in search of Oscar gold. Malkovich’s performance is just hammy enough to work, I believe.
Still, this is Lane’s film from start to finish (along with the horses that play Secretariat). Even when she’s forced to give the horse a heart-to-heart peptalk to get him to win the Kentucky Derby, Lane invests the moment with dignity while scraping the schmaltz off the script.
“Secretariat” is a movie your mom will love – and you may be surprised at just how caught up in it you get, as well.
* * * 3 Stars (out of 5)
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