Secretariat aspires to greatness

To the company of great films featuring equine heroes — from National Velvet and My Friend Flicka, to Seabiscuit and Phar Lap — add another great horse tale to the fold, Secretariat.

Secretariat 3 1/2 stars (out of 4) Rated: G

To the company of great films featuring equine heroes — from National Velvet and My Friend Flicka, to Seabiscuit and Phar Lap — add another great horse tale to the fold, Secretariat.

Fans will already know the bones of the story about the statuesque chestnut colt who overcame long odds to win racing’s Triple Crown in 1973.

For those who don’t, a piece of advice: Wallow in ignorance and this film will pack an even greater punch.

But Secretariat is also about a woman — Penny Chenery Tweedy (superbly played by Diane Lane) — a Denver housewife with four kids, determined to save her family’s stable located in Virginia, despite a disapproving husband, a skeptical brother and a male-dominated industry.

The script by Mike Rich and William Nack avoids the pratfalls of the feel-good movie, eschewing sentimentality and two-dimensional characters while creating a compelling storyline.

Lane excels as Chenery Tweedy, who’s poised, understated exterior conceals a shrewd mind, penchant for risk and an indomitable will.

Director Randall Wallace does an excellent job of conveying the sense of empathy — a meeting of minds almost — that exists between the thoroughbred and owner.

Wallace also assembles a fine supporting cast, especially John Malkovich as unconventional French-Canadian trainer Lucien Lauren — whom one character describes as “dressing like Superfly.”

The role is ideally suited to the actor’s dry wit and sardonic style. Malkovich and Lane share pleasing onscreen chemistry and he’s one of the few characters who doesn’t patronize her. Plus, his wardrobe is sure to elicit hoots of laughter.

Other notable supporting roles include James Cromwell as “the richest man in America,” Ogden Phipps, a canny businessman who wisely invests in Secretariat in the early stages; Scott Glenn, whose craggy features complement his role as Chenery Tweedy’s aging father; and Nestor Serrano at his bombastic best as the owner of a competing horse named Sham.

Wallace captures the fashion and entrenched chauvinism of the early 1970s. More importantly, he also succeeds in creating a sense of genuine suspense, even during the racing sequences which, despite the foregone conclusion of Secretariat’s triumph, are certain to have folks twisting in their seats.

It’s Wallace’s sure hand that prevents Secretariat from descending into sentimentality. Instead, it is an exciting, richly told tale with well-drawn characters, especially its two noble protagonists, a woman who succeeds against all odds and a horse who earns a place in history.

Bruce DeMara is a critic for The Toronto Star.