Sunday, October 16, 2011

New Release: The Cup (Simon Wincer, 2011)

Remember when Media Puzzle won the 2002 Melbourne Cup, when his jockey Damian Oliver overcame the tragic death of his brother Jason just a week before the event – the race that ‘Stops the Nation’ – to lead his horse to an emotional victory? The Cup, directed by Simon Wincer (Pharlap), tells this inspiring and transcendent true story. Having opened in cinemas on Thursday, The Cup has been released on the eve of the 2011 Spring Racing Carnival. Come to think of it, the Melbourne Cup is in less than three weeks. How this year has flown. But plagued by a corny screenplay that suffers from awful dialogue (even the great Brendan Gleeson looks bad spouting his lines), forced and unsubtle exposition and an uneven balancing of the stories of the trainers and jockeys, The Cup will be lucky to still be gathering crowds come the day of the big race.

The Cup opens poorly and it is evident pretty quickly that this is not going to be a film of high quality. The presentation of the Scobie Beasley Medal, which is a monumental event in the sport, feels like an under-10’s soccer presentation. Damian Oliver (played by Stephen Curry) is awarded the medal by his proud older brother, Jason (Daniel McPherson). Following Damian's speech (which I have witnessed the real Damian Oliver blow away naturally, and unscripted) there are some lackluster attempts at humour that would have no purpose being at a presentation of this nature.

Regarded as one of Australia’s best jockeys, Irish trainer Dermot Weld (Brendan Gleeson) has set his sights on Damien to ride his horse, Media Puzzle, the less-favoured stable mate of Melbourne Cup hopeful, Vinnie Roe. After the horses land in Australia under the care of stable hand, Dave Phillips (Tom Burlinson), Damien rides Media Puzzle to victory in the Geelong Cup, breaking the track record and qualifying the horse as a starter in the Cup. At the same time, Dubai racing giants, the Godolphin Stables, have assembled their starters in Australia, including the heavily favoured, Pugin.

But then tragedy strikes, both internationally with the Bali Bombings, and within the Oliver family. Jason is killed in a horrific fall during a barrier trial in Perth, and fails to recover from his injuries. Damien is mortified, contemplating early retirement from riding, and struggling to cope with the loss. With the support of his family, Dermot Weld and Media Puzzle's connections and the whole of Australia, Damian decides to ride the horse in the Cup. Extraordinarily, he wins the race and the film ends in Curry's salute to the heavens identical to Damian's action at the winning post in 2002. Simon Wincer is committed to building a crowd pleaser (and this will certainly draw some tears) but seemed content on settling with an uninventive and accessible tele-movie that would have better served as a Sunday night special. Not even the authentically recreated race sequences - easily the most impressive feature of the film, and likely to please racing devotees - and the often beautiful race photography, can save this cliche-riddled outing.

What plague films that recount heroic sporting achievements like this is that we already know what happens. Watching it unfold, accompanied by the generic score of triumph, we know it was a rousing and inspiring event, but it never feels like it. Wincer does utilize the actual race call, which is far better than replicating it (like the AFL call), but there are no surprises. Not one. Race fans and admirers of Damian Oliver, and there are many, will be likely interested in finding out more about the brother’s relationship and the events surrounding Media Puzzle’s path to the Cup and his grand victory. But seriously, this simplified chronicling of events reveals absolutely nothing new. I’m sure none were expecting the cookie-cutter, shallow plotting, the unconvincing performances, the barely acceptable characterisations and the attempts to be informative and moving to trail out well before the post. 

It’s a lazy, overlong film that features a host of poorly conceived representations of prominent racing figures. I’d really like to hear the thoughts of Lee Freedman about Sean Micallef’s smug, obnoxious, ‘Nation-pride’ portrayal of him. For one of Australia’s top trainers he did very little training, but seemed to be everywhere Damian was. Micallef’s hammy performance was the worst in a string of poor performances. Martin Sacks is there as Damien’s manager, and Jodi Gordon as his supportive girlfriend. Underused was the actress who played Damien’s mother – having first lost her husband, and now her son, in racing accidents – her performance of emotional battering is by far the most convincing. Brendan Gleeson, who always adds a charismatic and likeable warmth to his roles, does his best to lift things. There are some nice scenes between him and Tom Burlinson. 

Chatting with the trainer of Mr Prudent (who was an outsider and a surprise placing in the Cup) was redundant and only relevant following the prior knowledge that he placed in the race, which is later a detail completely ignored. Don’t get me started on the representation of Bart Cummings (the final role of Bill Hunter’s career), whose response to a question manages to squeeze in countless Bart-isms. Damian’s grief is portrayed through shots of Curry sitting by himself, looking forlornly off into the distance, and contemplating his future. Though there were a couple of times when the emotional weight he is carrying is evident on Curry's face, his newfound determination to win for Jason is almost non-existent.

I really feel bad for being hard on this film because I understand that there were some troubles with the production - losing investors and such - but being a racing fan and consistently being moved by the sport and this incredible story back in 2002, to watch such a disappointing account is a real shame. There is no way I can give this film a recommendation. Seriously, watching a replay of the race on Youtube rouses more emotions than the entirety of this film.

My Rating: ★★ (D)


  1. Oh dear, and after Stephen Curry went and lost so much weight for the role...I didn't even realise that this film was a cinema release, I thought it was going to be a telemovie until a few days ago. I think I'll give this a pass until I can rent it on DVD...

  2. I don't think there could be any other reaction: "It should have been a telemovie." If you have an interest in racing, or were moved by the story back in 2002, it's worth a look on DVD, but don't expect it to be any good. It is such a shame, considering the work that went into it.

  3. This looks like it should have been a telemovie. Ah well. I'll probably still watch it, considering it's about racehorses. But not until the DVD comes out. It really doesn't look like a cinema experience.

  4. It's not a cinema experience I'm sorry to say.