The Cup is a sincere inspirational sports drama with a lot of heart. This is not to say that it’s an especially great or even memorable film; it does everything it’s supposed to do on technical, emotional, and performance levels, but when it comes to narrative, it lacks the style and the spark of imagination necessary for it to stand out above the others. I use the word “imagination” in the grand cinematic sense. I know full well that the film is based on the true story of Damien Oliver, the Australian jockey who in 2002 competed in the Melbourne Cup horse race and won. His ride was the horse Media Puzzle, who was foaled in the United States and raised in Ireland by renowned racehorse trainer Dermot Weld. Media Puzzle would ultimately be put down in 2006 after shattering his one of his legs at the Ascot Gold Cup in England.
But I’m making this film sound like a retread of Seabiscuit or Secretariat. Unlike those films, The Cup is less about the horse and more about the jockey that rode him. Oliver, now on the verge of turning forty, came from a horse racing family, his grandfather, father, and brother all having been jockeys. His father, Ray, and brother, Jason, were both killed in racing accidents, the former when Oliver was only a small boy, the latter just weeks before the 2002 Melbourne Cup. In the film, Jason’s death comes about rather suddenly and is just sentimental enough to be touching but not so sentimental that it seems manipulative. The correct approach was to show it largely from the perspective of the mother, who when first entering the hospital has spontaneous flashbacks of the day she visited her braindead husband. I cannot imagine the pain of losing both your spouse and your child to the exact same cause.
Damien and Jason are portrayed by Stephen Curry and Daniel MacPherson respectively. I can’t begin to speculate on the strength of their real-life relationship, but in the film, theirs is the epitome of brotherly love – loyal and understanding, their occasional spats never escalating above innocent goading. You firmly believe that these men came from a good place and truly do care for each other. Damien’s goodbye to Jason as he lies on a hospital bed on life support is perhaps a bit scripted but is nonetheless poignant. Immediately following Jason’s death, Damien understandably begins to worry about his own physical and psychological well-being at the Melbourne Cup, wondering if perhaps his family is cursed. This is in part brought on by Jason’s widow, Trish (Jodi Gordon); in her grief, she asks Damien how many more Olivers have to die before enough is enough.
Weld is portrayed by Brendan Gleeson as a firm but affable man who believes more in performance than in winnings. He’s not the eccentric typical of movies like this, although he does practice a few unorthodox methods, and his confidence in his horses is second to none. He’s likeable enough, although there’s nothing especially memorable about this character. The same can be said for all the characters – and, for that matter, the story. The screenplay by Eric O’Keefe and director Simon Wincer is one of such basic human decency that it’s actually a little jarring; generally speaking, we’ve been conditioned to expect overwhelming conflict and drama from an inspirational sports movie. Even with Jason’s death, we’re continuously made aware of the love and support all the characters feel for one another, and therefore have already felt an emotional resolution. This approach may be more natural, but it certainly does little to enliven the experience.
There’s also a problem with narrative tangents that are either inadequately developed or so distantly related to the plot that they really had no business being included. An example of the former is a sheik from Dubai who enters his horse at the Melbourne Cup and watches the race from his master suite. His right hand man (Harli Ames) is the one who actually goes to Australia; apart from the occasional friendly conversation with Weld, he contributes just about nothing to the story. An example of the latter are repeated references to the 2002 Bali bombings, in which 202 people were killed, eighty-eight of which were Australians. This was indeed a tragedy, but its relevance to the story of Damien Oliver is never adequately addressed. The best we get is a vague connection to an injured football player, who Damien and Jason both saw play not long before the attacks.
The Cup was well cast, decently acted, and well intentioned, although I seriously doubt this will find a place on the same shelf as films like Rocky or Hoosiers or Rudy. I’ve said of many films that they have their heart in the right place, and this one is no exception. It’s pleasant and uplifting, but I suspect those emotional reactions will last only in the moment; as soon as the film is over, they will have faded, and by the time you get home, you may already have forgotten what you had seen. Having said that, I cannot speculate on how the film could have resonated on a deeper level. The ingredients were already there. All that was missing was someone who could stir them together into something truly satisfying. At best, one can say that this movie is edible – harmless enough but lacking texture and flavor.
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