RIDE LIKE A GIRL. Australia, 2019. Starring Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill, Stevie Payne, Sullivan Stapleton, Summer North, Magda Szubanski, Genevieve Morris, Aaron Glennane, Mick Molloy, Shane Bourne. Directed by Rachel Griffiths. 98 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language).
On the first Tuesday in November 2015, Australians were astonished as they watched the Melbourne Cup perhaps cheering on the non-favourite, Prince of Penzance, being written by a young jockey, Michelle Payne. And they won. As a prominent Australian politician might say “how good is that!”.
So, this is the story of Michelle Payne and the Payne family. The screenplay is written by prominent writer, Andrew Knight, and actress and television writer and director, Elise McCredie. And, there is empathy with Michelle Payne and her story from the director, Rachel Griffiths.
The point is that most of the audience knows that Michelle Payne wins so there is no mystery to be solved – rather, the story is to show how Michelle Payne achieved her victory.
The Payne family came from near Ballarat in western Victoria, a family of 10 children, their mother dying and leaving the upbringing of the children to her husband, Patrick. And, they can be a rowdy, sometimes unruly lot, with scenes of mealtimes and some chaos, shared rooms, friendships and rivalries, especially as each of them moves to working in the racing industry, some as jockeys, others in training. The special trainer is one of the younger sons, Stevie, with Downs Syndrome. In fact, Stevie plays himself in the film, quite smart and with some witty remarks, having the opportunity to relive some of his life on screen.
Michelle is the youngest and her father refers to her for years as “little girl”. She accompanies her father in the care of the horses, listens to his wisdom about how to read the softness and hardness of a racecourse, how to manoeuvre when gaps open between horses during a race and to take advantage and move to the front. At first, Michelle is played quite effectively by Summer North, She is then played by Teresa Palmer, always an attractive, sometimes quite feisty, screen presence. And, it is always a pleasure to see Sam Neill on screen, although we are surprised to find how stubborn he becomes in his fixed ideas about his daughter’s life and career. She leaves, no longer wanting to be or to be called ‘little girl’.
The film shows us quite a number of the Victorian racecourses, sometimes with Michelle waiting outside the trainers’ (all men) box, asking for a job is with horses but being ignored. She had raced in some local events (always coming last) but is determined to be a successful jockey. As might be expected, we watch her get some opportunities, not merit the hostility from some of the jockeys, her being relegated to small rooms with “Female Jockey” on the door. She does get some chances but has a severe fall, spending time in coma, physiotherapy, and eventually getting on a horse again.
The last part of the film shows her bonding with a special horse, Prince of Penzance, a horse who also gains the affection of Stevie, and brother and sister worked together. Despite some wariness and opposition, especially after she is reported to the stewards for interference and is suspended, she does get their call for the Melbourne Cup and, as they say and as we see in the film, the rest is history. (And some scenes with the real Michelle, along with Stevie himself, at the end of the race and her famous comment about the men who had been hostile to her, that they could get stuffed.)
So, while celebrating the “Female Jockey”, her intense determination and ambition, her achievement, this is a very popular kind of entertainment for Australian audiences and, one hopes, racing enthusiasts beyond Australia.
Transmission Films. Released September 26th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.