Rachel Griffiths directorial debut, Ride Like a Girl, will end up as being the highest grossing (domestic) Australian film of 2019. This is the retelling of the story of Michelle Payne, the first woman to ride a horse to victory in the Melbourne Cup. Vocal vegan Teresa Palmer takes the role of Michelle, while every-dad Sam Neill plays her horse trainer father, Paddy. Michelle’s actual brother Stevie plays himself. The cast is rounded out with a who’s who of Australian cinema, including Magda Szubanski, Sullivan Stapleton, Aaron Glenane, Brooke Satchwell, and Henry Nixon.
In the past, the Melbourne Cup has been a fruitful ground for film adaptations, with both Phar Lap and The Cup being successful and well regarded films. Michelle Payne’s victory makes narrative sense to adapt for the screen, arriving at a time where stories about women overcoming the odds in male dominated fields are flourishing as the battle for equality on screen rages on. But, Ride Like a Girl also arises in a climate where the Melbourne Cup and its adjacent horse racing events are under increased scrutiny, with this years event being one of the lowest supported events in years.
The film opens with the obligatory message about ‘no animals being harmed during the making of this film’, and with that note, the tone is set. Yet, it’s an out of tune, out of touch, and positively misguided one.
I am conflicted by making this comparison, but alas, here we go:
I want to stress, no, I am not equating the horse racing industry with the rise of Nazi’s, but rather, I’m outlining how sometimes an honourable story that may appear to have value on paper lacks that same value when transferred to screen.
It’s frustrating that in the then 155 year old race, no woman had won, and it’s even more frustrating that Michelle received an overwhelming level of misogyny driven oppression that squashed both her and her sisters chances of being successful jockeys. Payne’s narrative is one that is a victim of circumstance. There is value in telling her story, but that value is overwhelmed by the mere fact that the industry itself has become a toxic quagmire of increasing issues about the animal cruelty and corruption.
The script by Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie feels startlingly close to being propaganda-esque. It’s full of blind adoration of the racing industry, willfully ignoring the grand issues that have plagued the subjects. There is a way to tell the story of Michelle Payne that also addresses these problematic elements, but given the need to have the family sign off on telling the story, while also having the ability to film on the many racing tracks that Payne raced on, the film buckles under the weight of the overwhelming amount of sanitisation solution that the producers and writers have poured onto the material. You can virtually smell the pungent alcohol based smell of Dettol hand sanitiser waft from the screen as moments of sexism and animal cruelty are either downplayed as a lark or completely ignored.
Two moments come to mind immediately, one where Genevieve Morris’ manager is trying to coax the male lead racehorse owners to allow Michelle to ride their horse to victory. As she cycles through painful phone conversations which are played for laughs, she lands on the line, ‘female, a human mare!’ as a way of encouraging a man to allow Michelle to ride the horse. Much laughter ensues.
The other comes later in the piece, where Michelle is well on her path to victory, and as she is ushered down a corridor to be weighed, someone comments about there being protestors outside, but to simply ignore them. This kind of verbal set dressing appears as less of a recognition that there are issues in the racing industry that the public wants to address via protests, and more akin to the way Peter Dutton talks about climate change protestors, as if they are a blight on society and should be named and shamed.
Back to the Payne family, the ever necessary element to allow this story to be told. Their presence is unavoidable, and decidedly non-self reflective. Take the horribly miscast Sam Neill as Paddy, a usually reliable actor who delivers brilliant performance after brilliant performance. Here he plays a grandly misogynistic father who favours his sons journeys to becoming jockeys over his daughters. He has lost his wife, and as the film progresses, we see him lose a daughter, Brigid, and as such the film prioritises his losses over his daughters.
Yes, Paddy may be a caring man who is also stubborn, but the film never condemns him for being an absent father or for his selfishness. After telling Michelle that he doesn’t want her to be a jockey, and in an act of defiance Michelle follows the path anyhow, he cuts off contact to her, believing that silence is the best option. Obnoxiously, when Paddy sits down to have a conversation with a priest, the discussion presents him as the victim, with the priest saying that he’s done a ‘grand job under impossible circumstances’. Of course! It’s Michelle’s yearning for success and equality that is the bother, not the stifling presence of Paddy in her life.
Yet, Rachel Griffiths direction works to suggest that there is nothing wrong with his behaviour, and routinely lets him, and other men off the hook. In fact, the way that Paddy repeatedly uses the nickname ‘little girl’ for Michelle feels awfully condescending, but is always played as a term of endearment.
For a film about sexism and misogyny, it sure is presented as a bit of a lark. For the most part, the exclusion of Michelle from the racing groups is delivered in such a way that suggests that as long as she waits in the sidelines for her turn, she’ll eventually be noticed. Sure, there are moments where men propose that she can further her career by sleeping with them, but the gravity of these comments, and the inherent misogyny and toxicity in the industry is downplayed, making the impact of such moments feel muted and worthless.
It is in this way that Race Like a Girl becomes clear that it is a film in service of the racing industry, and not in service of Michelle’s story. One can’t help but feel that with the ever amplifying PR crisis that faces horse racing, with new allegations of cruelty each week, and an increasing distrust with the ‘animals for entertainment’ industries globally, the racing industry is using Michelle’s story to paint a positive picture for themselves.
For the first half of the film, Teresa Palmer hardly gets any lines as Michelle. Instead, everyone talks at her, not to her in a conversation. Palmer is one of Australia’s great modern actresses, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that she is also miscast here. The fire, the desire, the burn to be a jockey is never evident. Michelle Payne is a vocal person, not afraid to let her feelings be known, and yet, when Palmer’s version of Payne wins the Melbourne Cup, she instead celebrates the presence of her brother, Stevie, rather than being able to utter the iconic response to people doubting her ability: ‘Get stuffed’. Instead, this is relegated to archival footage over the credits.
Which begs the question why this film was dramatised to begin with? The film opens with documentary footage, and closes with a similar style. Maybe it’s the fact that Payne is quite outspoken about the sport being a chauvinistic affair. The relevance of her success feels muted, again reinforcing the feeling that this is a film that celebrates the industry and not the victory of Payne herself. A smarter director and wiser writers would at least have made a nod to the fact that Payne’s racing colours in the Cup are that of the Suffragette movement.
This carries across to the actual act of racing itself. We read on screen that Michelle suffered multiple injuries across her career, and while we do get an extended sequence of seeing her recover from one injury, we’re never left with an unclear impression that her success was hard won. The sport is continually called the most dangerous one around, and while we see the strains that Michelle goes through to reach a necessary weight, the danger of riding a massive beast on unstable ground is never properly realised.
For the majority of the film, the issues that plague Ride Like a Girl are plenty. With Rachel Griffiths weak direction, a tepid script, poor casting decisions, and an obvious controlling hand from the racing industry, there is little to recommend here.
But, then the Melbourne Cup race itself takes place, and the brilliance of Jamie Doolan’s race cinematography and direction arise.
In these moments, we’re immersed in the race, experiencing the beat of the horses hooves on the turf, witnessing the tightness of the testosterone fuelled jockeys surrounding Payne’s path through the pack. It’s here that the film suddenly comes to life. In these moments, all the issues wash away, and one of the most exhilarating moments in Australian cinema for 2019 takes place. It’s genuinely thrilling, edge of the seat stuff.
This is Robert McKee’s ‘wow them in the end’ in action. You leave the cinema on a high, forgetting all the issues that have come beforehand, feeling like you can truly celebrate the success of Michelle Payne.
But this finale is as disingenuous as the film itself. It’s a hand waving attempt to make the racing industry appear like the good guys. Which is the biggest crime of all – for all of Michelle Payne’s success, for all of her well earned glory, it’s all in service of elevating a toxic industry founded on an outdated practice of bacchanalia.
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