(Editors note: Yes, this post is a bit of a long’ne, but I highly recomend you read it all! The detail Gilmore goes into is absolutely incredible and reading it makes me want to step up my review game).
For many people, dreaming impossible dreams as a child involves becoming a police dog (you read that right. Not officer- dog.) or being a superhero with a cape and a cool catchphrase. We dream of fairies and unicorns, mermaids and pirate ships org witches and wizards in robes standing in front of dragons breathing fire. If you were me, you dreamed of being a dinosaur scientist (because who knows the word palaeontologist at age 4?). But for Michelle Payne, the dream was very different. She wanted to ride in the Melbourne Cup, and on that first Tuesday in November 2015, the nation stopped and collectively held their breath as they watched an injured horse and an injured woman ride towards victory.
Dreaming of glory all her life, Michelle Payne could name every Melbourne Cup winning horse and jockey and committed herself to learning wherever and however she could. Raised as the youngest of 10 children, 8 of whom were jockeys at some stage in their life, Michelle was given ample opportunity to learn. Growing up on a farm at Miners Rest, near Ballarat in country Victoria, Michelle was lucky enough to have the opportunity to watch her siblings’ race and learn from them, as well as from her eternally wise father, Paddy Payne. After an injury that left her with a fractured skull, a bruised brain and multiple broken bones; Michelle met Prince of Penzance, the horse who would soon be her winner. Payne overcame various obstacles, both physical and emotional, in her life with grace, even holding her head high when she decided to leave her father’s house, move to Melbourne and try her luck at the racecourse in case it meant meeting a trainer who could really help her. And who could forget the way she met her winning horse? Bought for $50,000 (which is chump change to horse trainers, and generally too low to mean a strong ride) Prince of Penzance came into her life through the most heart-warming avenue – her beloved brother Stevie (whose performance I will touch on in greater detail a little later).
Being a woman in a traditionally male dominated industry is difficult, and made even more difficult when you have the weight of your family’s greatness sitting on your shoulders. Whether it be at school where her teachers and assistant principal urged her to be “different” to your sisters” or at the track trying to find work only to be told by a trainer the only way he would give her a ride is “if you give me one too” Michelle faced every challenge with bravery. This bravery and great ambition she holds were truly shown to the nation when she eventually became the first female to win the Melbourne Cup in the 159 years since its inception (at the time, 155 years.) She has since received several awards for outstanding achievement in her field, and for inspiring the nation so greatly with her gutsy climb to the top and fearless spirit.
Ride like a Girl tells her story gloriously. The opening sequence of the film shows various clips of racing – from real footage of the Melbourne Cup through the years, to home footage of Michelle and her family at home, racing and working with horses. This sets the scene for the emotional rollercoaster that is Ride like a Girl – a movie that has you laughing, crying and cheering with joy at several times during the film, and even had some of the audience applauding as the credits rolled. The film seamlessly incorporates footage from real races she had been in, as well as the selection of the barriers on the eve of the 2015 Cup, and her winning, along with the recreations of key events in her life as played out by the cast. The film is so involved and makes you feel so much for her that when the barriers opened and the horses bolted, you could once again feel everyone in the audience hold their breath for her. This film even handles the obscene masculinity of the industry with poise and style, making a point of showing Michelle’s strength and determination to audiences rather than placing too heavy an emphasis on the sexism she faced. Teresa Palmer (who plays Michelle Payne) handles the role in such a touching way, even nailing key quirks of Michelle’s to produce an uncanny performance. (Just watch the way she walks and you’ll see that defiant jockey who took the nation by storm in 2015.)
Casting for this movie was impeccable, with a selection of some of Australia’s finest dropped into the mix even if only for a scene or two. Notable stars include Magda Szubanski who played the assistant principal at Michelle’s high school, Mick Molloy who played a trainer Michelle was trying to convince into hiring her, Sam Neill as Paddy Payne, Michelle’s father and Stevie Payne (Michelle’s brother) as himself. The actors bring with them their own unique sense of each character, and blend together to make the family and the small community feel real and relevant. (Not to mention it was the brain child of Rachel Griffiths.) Each actor was touching, truthful and grounded in their role, providing incredible support not only to Michelle, but to the story. Stevie Payne’s performance held them altogether, giving fourth-wall breaking realness to the film and once again proving that you can do anything you put your mind to if you want it badly enough. Stevie has down syndrome (another of my favourite jokes from the movie – “You can’t do that!” “Yes I can, I have down syndrome.”) but has never let that define him. In real life, Stevie started working with the trainer who owned Prince of Penzance and was ultimately the reason Michelle was able to meet her winning horse. Stevie’s performance is beautiful, as he recreates the exact moments and conversations he had with his loved ones on screen.
Speaking of great Australians, the soundtrack also features a number of great Australian songs and performers; perhaps the most empowering of all being Sia’s song Alive. This song plays over and in the background of scenes of Michelle (quite literally) getting back on the horse after her accident, and preparing for the future. This was one of those moments where the audience had a sense of just how determined she was and how much it meant to her, as statistics flashed on the screen about the number of races she had entered, kilometres she had rode and injuries she had had that got her to this point- training for the Melbourne Cup.
While there has been some controversy surrounding the film, with the premiere screening gate crashed by animal rights activists, there was a point made twice (once at the start, once at the end of the film) to ensure audiences are aware that no animals were harmed in the making of the film. During the film, we only see the horses being treated with love and respect, and while there is a scene depicting Michelle’s fall and subsequent injuries, the only time we see the horse is when she opens her eyes and sees him lying next to her before getting up and trotting away from Michelle – still motionless on the track.
This effortlessly stunning movie leaves you walking out with a sense of fearless self-belief – that you really can do anything you put your mind to if you’re willing to put in the hard yards to get there. If Michelle Payne can do that, what can you do? Against all odds, this tiny woman from country Victoria won the Cup. Michelle Payne is a shining example of “Don’t dream it – be it.” And an inspiration to one and all. Seeing her story told like that, with such care and careful planning, filled me with a sense of pride and empowerment that I’m sure everyone else in the audience felt too.
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