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Courses for Horses

Horses (2010)

DCD Media

In 2004, Liz Mermin directed “The Beauty Academy of Kabul,” in which she followed a few fearless American hairdressers who decided to empower Afghan women through cosmetology. At one point, one of the students was asked about the future for women in her country now that the Taliban were not in charge. The student replied something along the lines that although she had a lovely husband herself, it was pointless to think that women would ever have equality with men since they would never allow it. The westerners fell into a stunned, depressed silence, and the eager-to-please student asked if she had said the wrong thing.

After that experience, it’s no surprise that Ms. Mermin has in her new film turned her back on people almost entirely. Filmed over a year at an Irish racing stable, “Horses” follows the fortunes of three horses belonging to a trainer named Paul Nolan, and explicitly identifies itself as a documentary where the animals are the stars. For obvious reasons, this doesn’t quite work.

The comparisons that kept springing to mind were the “Babe” movies, “The Incredible Journey” movies and more recently “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” in which various animal personalities are secondary to a plot engineered to human interests. Animal interactions with long-suffering actors are less important than learning — thanks to long-suffering voice-over artists — what the animals are really thinking; the alpha and omega of the genre is “Paulie,” with Joe Pesci voicing a wiseguy parrot. But all of those movies had a plot. There was good news, then bad news, then good news again. No matter how weird the scenario, something was definitely at stake for the animal and viewer both.

In “Horses,” Ms. Mermin focuses solely on the daily lives of the animals — three geldings named Ardalan, Joncol and Cuan Na Grai (Gaelic for harbor of love) — through the course of a year in which they run a variety of races on the English and Irish circuits. The film was clearly shot on a single hand-held camera, and several images show the horses investigating the sound mics. Several cheerful training jockeys — all male, none identified by name — discuss and compare the horses and how they feel they will hold up throughout the year. There is a good sense of the horses’ personalities, and Tommy, the head trainer — the Angelo Dundee to the horses’ Ali — talks to them exactly as if they were boxers who need psyching up. Consistently referred to as athletes, the horses are put through their paces, fed, get injured, heal and race. Sometimes they win, more often they lose. Before each race subtitles show the name, the purse and the odds.

But the film consistently fails to disclose what the stakes are. What does the owner get if the horse runs well, and what will happen to the animal if it consistently loses? Of the 80 horses in Mr. Nolan’s stable, why these three? Mr. Nolan spends a lot of time discussing the strategy being tailored for each of the horses and complaining about the conditions on each race day; it would have been more interesting to learn about his business strategy and how he adapts to the strengths of each of his animals. There’s little here to hook the interest or make us care about what will happen next. It would also have been nice to learn what motivates the men who work at Toberona — this is an entirely male film — to devote all their time to these animals.

There’s one beautiful shot of the training ground, with the horses emerging from fog, with the camera hidden at the side of the track. It’s followed by a trainer boasting that his favorite was the only horse to notice the camera. The Irish accents are so thick in the movie that subtitles are used at times, which will no doubt assist the film in achieving a wider audience. But the titles aren’t terribly accurate, in that they remove most of the profanity and are inconsistently used. Combined with the glib intertitles, they give the whole film a slapdash feel, and show Ms. Mermin never took control of her material. Horses cannot disappoint as people can. But someone should have pointed out to her is that movies about nothing much do the same thing.


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