Directed by: Simon Wincer
Written by:Simon Wincer, Eric O’Keefe
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Steve Curry, Daniel MacPherson, Alice Parkinson, Tom Burlinson, Shaun Micallef
Released: October 13, 2011
Grade: C+

So many Melbourne Cups have been filled with drama and intriguing storylines.  In 1976, the weather conditions were so bad that the commentators couldn’t identify the horses for much of the race.  In 1991, Let’s Elope earned the win after surviving the first protest in Cup in history.  In 2005, Makybe Diva became the only horse to win the race on three consecutive occasions.

That said, there was something extra special about the 2002 Melbourne Cup.  Australia’s leading jockey, Damien Oliver, was set to ride Media Puzzle in the race for Irish trainer Dermot Weld.  The horse had won the Geelong Cup in the lead up and was going into the Melbourne Cup as one of the more fancied contenders.

Tragedy struck however.  Just a week before the Cup, Damien’s older brother suffered fatal injuries during a horse race in Perth.  Damien immediately left Melbourne and flew home to be with his family.  Given that his father had also died in a racing accident, it left Damien pondering his future in one of the world’s most dangerous sports.

After much soul searching, he decided to fulfil his commitment to Dermot Weld and take his mount in the “race that stops a nation.”  The rest, as they say, is history.  The record books will forever show that Media Puzzle ridden by Damien Oliver was the winner of the 2002 Melbourne Cup.  What they won’t show is the courage shown by Damien to get himself on that horse in the first place.

That’s something that writers Simon Wincer and Eric O’Keefe have tried to remedy with the new Australian film, The Cup.  It’s been a long-term project given they started working on the script not long after the race in 2002.  They tried to get it off the ground several times but a lack of finance made things difficult.  To give you a further indication of how long this took, the footage used in the film of the big crowds at Flemington and also at an AFL match were shot way back in 2007.

The film is designed to leave you in tears at the end.  Director Simon Wincer (Free Willy, The Phantom) and his team have done this by milking every ounce of sentimentality they could from the story.  Its teats must have been sore.  It’s effective though.  My own eyes were moist as the closing started to roll.

Does this make it a great film, however?  The answer is no.  A few tears doth not a good movie make.  You could have pulled this together as a documentary (like the recent Senna) and generated just as much, if not more emotion.  Just watching Damien Oliver’s actual post race interview on Youtube leaves me feeling sentimental.

The Cup doesn’t dig deeply enough into its characters.  Everyone is portrayed in a positive light and it’s as if the writers were too afraid to challenge the audience.  Following the death of Damien’s brother, trainer Dermot Weld (played nicely by Brendan Gleeson) keeps reiterating that Damien is the only jockey that can ride Media Puzzle and that he wants to give him as much time as possible to make a decision.  Ok, that’s what was said publically but was Weld really thinking?  We see a disagreement between Weld and the horse’s owner but again, it’s only fleetingly touched upon.

The film also tries to bite off more than it can chew.  A big inspiration for Damien Oliver was North Melbourne football player Jason McCartney who was badly injured in the Bali bombings a few weeks prior to the 2002 Melbourne Cup.  To bring this subplot into the movie, the writers have had to show Damien and his brother at an AFL game, show them watching the Bali bombings unfold on television and then show Damien meeting McCartney in hospital.  It’s a distraction from the main story and I’d question its relevance.  The same could be said of the Godolphin stable and their horses.

The Cup’s most obvious weakness is its clichéd dialogue.  Some of the lines from these characters belong in a B-grade telemovie.  I’d also ask why we needed the myriad of sports commentators?  The list includes Eddie McGuire, Steven Quartermain, Bruce McAvaney, Dennis Commetti, Gerard Whateley and even the Coodabeen Champions.  Their commentary has been used to help explain events as they happened but I found it more distracting than informative.  Perhaps it’s been included for the benefit of international audiences who won’t know as much about AFL and horse racing.

I don’t want to come off too critical because close to $15m has been poured into this production and I’d like to see it succeed at the Australian box-office in a similar vein to the recent Red Dog.  It’s important for our industry as a whole.  The film was received warmly by racing fans last Friday night at its Brisbane premiere and it’s been given a strong endorsement by the real Damien Oliver and his family.  I stand by my criticisms but perhaps you’d better off taking their recommendations over mine.

You can read my interview with director Simon Wincer and star Stephen Curry by clicking here