Experienced Yank-born documaker Liz Mermin (“The Beauty Academy of Kabul”) tracks the progress of three young Irish racehorses over the course of a year in the engaging, steadily paced Irish-British co-production, “Horses.” Pic’s charismatic protagonists (both human and equine), crisp editing and elegant lensing foster engagement with a narrative that doesn’t dumb down the racing world’s complexities. Late January release should have a brief canter through Blighty’s arthouse course before heading for upmarket cable stables, though the helmer’s rep may ensure a couple of laps at specialty fests.
The Toberona stable in County Wexford, Ireland, stands at the center of the pic’s story. Owned by horse trainer Paul Nolan, whose roguish good looks and colorfully filthy turns of phrase make him a compelling presence, Toberona is the home of recently retired champion stallion Accordion Etoile.
With main breadwinner Etoile now out of action due to injury, Nolan pins his hopes on three steeds whose personalities emerge over the pic’s running time. Small-statured but plucky chestnut Ardalan shows great promise as a jumper, but seems to suffer from attention-deficit disorder. High-strung Cuan na Grai, a 7-year-old who’s “a bit ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’?” according to Nolan’s brother James, has had big wins but struggles with a tendon injury. Stunning, sable-colored giant Joncol looks set to replace Etoile as the stable’s star, if luck sends him the right kind of ground to run on.
A felt but unseen presence, helmer Mermin skillfully coaxes explanations about the finer points of training and racing from the pic’s human participants in order to elucidate what will seem an impenetrable world to outsiders initially. Onscreen titles helpfully fill in the blanks.
The film will delight connoisseurs of the “sport of kings,” but neophytes need not feel excluded: There’s plenty of pleasure to be had from watching the animals themselves and hearing the way the trainers, especially sweet old codger Tommy Woods, a groom, talk about and to the animals.
Abundant cutaways to the many dogs, cats and even mice who mingle with the horses in the stables evoke a milieu where animals and people are on near-equal footing.
Mixing TV coverage with original lensing that always keeps the right horse center-frame, the races offer periodic bursts of excitement. Sound mix adds another interesting layer of texture, with dialogue sometimes gradually muted in favor of a sparse but rhythmic electro score by James Burrell that somehow evokes an equine viewpoint.