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Race against grief

The Cup (PG). Director: Simon Wincer. Starring: Stephen Curry, Daniel McPherson, Colleen Hewitt, Brendan Gleeson, Jodi Gordon. 106 minutes

The big test for any historically based sports film is how well it manages to sustain emotional engagement and dramatic tension, despite the common-knowledge nature of the events. In 2002, jockey Damien Oliver rode Irish horse Media Puzzle to Melbourne Cup glory, one week after his brother, Jason, was killed in a racing incident. (The brothers' father, Ray, had died under similar circumstances when they were children.) The Cup recreates the tragic and inspirational events in style.

Curry — known mainly for his comic roles in The Castle and those AFL themed Toyota commercials — provides a solid dramatic turn as Damien. As the film begins Damien is already an acclaimed jockey, having won his fourth Racing Victoria Limited Scobie Breasley Medal for riding excellence. The film then turns immediately to his family relationships, notably with Jason (McPherson) and their mother Pat (Hewitt). These human relationships are at the film's heart.

Damien is due to ride Media Puzzle in the Cup, and the early signs are good: they easily win the Geelong Cup, seen as a precursor to Melbourne. However when Jason is killed, Damien is thrown into turmoil. His grief tests his own resolve, as well as the faith of Irish trainer Dermot Weld (Gleeson). Damien must also consider his mother, now twice bereaved by the sport, and his wife, Trish (Gordon), suddenly acutely aware of the dangers of sitting astride 400kg of galloping horseflesh.

The Cup dwells at length on Damien's struggle with this dilemma, to ride or not to ride. Perhaps too long, given that we all know what decision he ultimately made. The film risks being mired in the maudlin, but is carried through by Curry's strong performance and solid contributions from a supporting cast that includes TV comedian Shaun Micallef, credible in a straight role as Damien's former trainer and mentor, alonside Australian cinema staples Tom Burlinson and Bill Hunter.

Make no mistake, The Cup is sentimental, even romantic in its portrayal of horseracing.

But it is also refreshingly traditional. None of the parochial jokiness, boutique idiosyncrasy, or blood-and-boobs edginess that tend to be the mark of many modern Australian films. Just a straight-faced, straight-laced drama, with a polished script, unashamedly nostalgic score, the scope and scale to demand a cinematic viewing, and uniformly good performances from a fair dinkum Aussie cast (no Hollywoodised expats here). Squint and it could be 1983.

No coincidence that The Cup harks back to the golden age of Australian cinema. Wincer helmed Australia's other great horseracing film, Phar Lap, two decades ago. The Cup operates as a quasi sequel or update of that film, referencing the great horse himself and ruminating on the changeless nature of Australian horseracing. This changelessness is also reflected in the film's classical style.

Wincer uses a variety of tactics to achieve verisimilitude. Distractingly, this includes sore-thumb cameos from a cavalcade of sports commentators, including Bruce McAvaney, Dennis Commetti and ABC Radio's Coodabeen Champions. On the other hand, its references to the Bali bombing, and the influence upon Damien of AFL star Jason McCartney's (played by Rodger Corser) heroic behaviour during that incident, is more efficiently and effectively handled. 

When the big finish does arrive, The Cup executes every trope (read: cliché) in the sports film playbook — simmering build-up, slow-motion finish, cross-cutting between the russet thunder on the track and the variously anxious and excited audience reactions — in order to ramp up the tension. That it succeeds in getting audiences barracking for Oliver all over again, despite the well-known outcome, is testament to good technique over innovation.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Cup, Melbourne Cup, horseracing, Phar Lap, Damien Oliver



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