Much akin to his relationship of Wimbledon and tennis, this critic’s understanding and knowledge of the horse racing world begins and ends with the Grand National. As such, to my shame, I had never heard of trailblazing Australian jockey Michelle Payne prior to an experience Ride Like a Girl, the new biopic to tell her story. I confess to knowing less still about the sexism still at rage in contemporary equestrian circles. To this end, the film, which has this week made its home cinema debut, proves as educationally notable – if not quite analytical – as it is visually attractive.
Compared to the personal and professional dramas faced by its leading lady in 1990s Australia, it would be fair to deem the film soft in execution. It screens with a televisual quality, and gentle tone, rather setting back the stakes. One might even expect breaks for commercials. And yet, it will be a hard heart that fails to be drawn even a little into the emotional ups and downs of Payne’s journey, so eloquently scribed by writers Elise McCredie and Hacksaw Ridge’s Andrew Wright. That too traded grit for wallop and trotted along a well-trodden path.
Born last to a family of ten, Payne grew up with competition in her veins. When, aged 15, she committed to a career in racing, she was the eighth of her siblings to so. At school, Payne skips classes to listen to radio broadcasted meets in the bathroom. At home, she will later struggle to disguise her contempt when her elder sister gives up her career in the sport for marriage and a 2.4 lifestyle. Only, this is the life expected for Payne also. Throughout the film, we repeatedly see her legitimacy as a contender questioned, her gender perceived as one jump too many: ‘I don’t see you telling your husbands to stop and they’ve all been injured.’
The film comes directed by Rachel Griffiths, a figure of recent controversy in the public eye for ill-advised light-heartedness over Australia’s Black Lives Matter protests. Her approach here is more empowering and yet never quite lets blood. Whilst Griffths champions the femininity of her lead, swimming in a sea of male opposition, she never mines deeper. Sexism is inconvenient in this world, as opposed to abominable. Early in the film a bulimia gag falls flat, whilst later there is a concerning lack of outrage when Payne is asked to shrink her already unhealthy weight a further 3kg to ride with the elite. It is with similar whimsy that the film neglects contemporary animal welfare protests and breezes through a succession of traumas that one suspects would have left more lasting mental distress.
Lightweight that the film might be, there is emotional resonance enough in Teresa Palmer’s stirring central performance. Sam Neil twinkles in the role of relentless father – ‘I was selfish but I was right’ – with Magda Szubanski bringing comic wit to a nun with attitude. Watch out too for a lovely, fleeting performance from Payne’s real-life brother Stevie, who has Down’s syndrome and plays himself. Their four legged co-stars look suitably pretty in touchingly choreographed exchanges and are generally well handled in rousing race sequences. All plays out against the most gorgeous of pastel pink and blue dapple backdrops by cinematographer Martin McGrath.
Never just as heart wrenching and unpredictable as Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, nor so stirring as Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit, Ride Like a Girl should prove nonetheless enlightening to the uninitiated. The sense that Griffiths is content to sit pretty might rob Payne of the cutting biopic one suspects she is worth but, as a home video release, the film she has will go well with a cup of tea.