'Secretariat': Tale of a horse and a woman who run their own race

From left: Diane Lane, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, and John Malkovich are shown in a scene from, "Secretariat." Lane plays the stallion’s owner, Malkovich its trainer.

Secretariat, an equine Chariots of Fire, is the true-life tale of the mighty chestnut stallion known to intimates as Big Red.

The makers of Secretariat present him as a sacred figure, born in a stable and destined to inspire men.

Like the horse in the Book of Job, Big Red swallows the ground with fierceness and rage. And in this movie with a gospel-inflected score ("Oh Happy Day"), when the horse meets the bottomless gaze of his owner, the chestnut returns it with peace and infinite patience.

A workmanlike sports inspirational boasting a potent performance from Diane Lane, Secretariat harnesses womanpower to horsepower for galvanic effect. Director Randall Wallace (Braveheart scribe) and writer Mike Rich (The Nativity Story, The Rookie) deliver a mostly true story about a woman and her horse who both stand their ground.

Lane plays Penny Chenery, Denver homemaker, mother of four, and daughter of a Virginia horse breeder. In 1969, when her mother dies and her father's mind is clouded by dementia, Penny shuttles between Colorado and Virginia, striving to keep the family together and the family business from coming apart.

Her brother wants to liquidate Dad's stud farm. Very much her father's daughter, Penny runs her own race. She has the temerity to suggest that a thoroughbred's dam is as important as its sire, and guesses how best to produce a horse that has both stamina and speed.

Serially patronized by the farm manager, horse trainers, her husband, and her brother, Penny stands up to each, seeming to grow in height after each confrontation. Penny's only support comes from Miss Ham (reliable Margo Martindale), her father's secretary.

Lane, often the romantic with the downcast eyes, leads with upthrust chin and fierce eloquence. As in Braveheart, there are many rousing monologues in this speechy movie. Both as the businesswoman who believes a woman's place is in the Winner's Circle and as the mother crushed that she missed her daughter's recital, Lane is charismatic and credible.

The filmmakers present Penny and Big Red (played by five horses, including Trolley Boy, winner of the 2008 Secretariat Look-a-Like Contest) as cosmic twins, forces of nature who will not be denied.

The result, if occasionally forced, is also irresistible, especially in racing sequences shot from the jockey's perspective as if by SaddleCam. Speaking of jockeys, real-life horseman Otto Thorwarth is excellent as jockey Ron Turcotte.

Wallace is a director of moments, not of cohesive wholes. His movie is a parade of confrontations punctuated by a thrilling race. Apart from Lane and Thorwarth, actingwise the movie is a pageant of undistinguished performances by distinguished actors such as John Malkovich (as clownish horse-trainer Lucien Laurin), Fred Dalton Thompson (as improbably named breeder Bull Hancock), and Scott Glenn (as Penny's father).

While I like how Lane wears Penny's period sheaths and riding clothes, I'm puzzled by Bull's description of Lucien's getups, circa 1969: "He dresses like Superfly." 1) He doesn't. 2) Superfly, the one about the pimped-out drug dealer, wasn't released until 1972.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.


Directed by Randall Wallace. With Diane Lane. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Parent's guide: Unrated ().