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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Ride Like a Girl

It tells the true tale of Michelle Payne's historic Melbourne Cup win, but this is an overly straightforward and generic biopic.
By Sarah Ward
September 26, 2019
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Ride Like a Girl

It tells the true tale of Michelle Payne's historic Melbourne Cup win, but this is an overly straightforward and generic biopic.
By Sarah Ward
September 26, 2019
  shares

On the first Tuesday in November back in 2015, history was made. When Michelle Payne rode Prince of Penzance to victory at the Melbourne Cup, she became the first female jockey to win the race that stops the nation since it was first held back in 1861. That she beat 100-to-one odds made the story even sweeter. Payne's post-race statement, telling the world to "get stuffed if they think women aren't strong enough", rightfully became an empowering soundbite as well. Among not only track-goers and punters, but also folks who couldn't care less for the sport, hers instantly became a household name.

Payne's win was a universal feel-good moment — a rare feat at an event and in an industry that are both saddled with multiple controversies. She didn't just fulfil her own wildest dreams, of course, with her victory having an aspirational effect. In addition to sending an uplifting message to girls, reminding them that they can do anything, the trailblazing achievement captured the broader public imagination. And, as usually happens whenever that's the case, cameras started rolling in response. While a schmaltzy Hollywood flick wouldn't have felt out of place, it was the wheels of the Australian cinema that started moving — helped by funding from several racing-affiliated bodies, plus a gambling agency.

Whether made for television or playing in cinemas, a movie about Payne's success was always going to happen. Alas, while Ride Like a Girl is now racing across the big screen, it'd also suit a smaller canvas. The directorial debut of actor-turned-filmmaker Rachel Griffiths, it spins a well-known true tale in an overly familiar and straightforward fashion, including visually. Its aim: to simply warm hearts and spark cheers as it champions its real-life inspiration. If you've seen one rousing underdog movie, however — the kind where characters overcome rocky beginnings, suffer and toil, then follow their passions in a difficult field — then you've basically already seen this.

Screenwriters Andrew Knight (Ali's Wedding) and Elise McCredie (Jack Irish) couldn't have come up with a more film-friendly story, not only spanning Payne's big moment but her background. Her family name was synonymous with horse racing long before she won the Melbourne Cup, with her father Paddy a veteran trainer, and eight of her nine older siblings all also working in the industry. But, despite her burning desire to race and her formidable work ethic, she was continually told that she'd never claim the sport's most glittering prize — or get the opportunity to try. Convincing her dad to support her dream was hard enough, let alone earning a decent run on the track or being treated fairly by her male colleagues. The fact she lost her mother as baby, the death of her sister during a race and her own bout of serious injuries all complicated matters, too.

As nice as it might be to live a life that resembles a fantasy — or, not to downplay Payne's struggles, to navigate the kind of upward path that's usually the domain of crowd-pleasing fiction — where biopics are involved, it can make for flat viewing. Detail, texture and chaos all help a story resonate, as do intimate moments that feel inescapably specific to the real events at hand. Unsurprisingly, a broad overview doesn't have the same impact, especially one that seems as if it could apply to any number of similar tales. That's among Ride Like a Girl's chief troubles. Even when it serves up tidbits that could've only come from Payne's life, it takes such a light and breezy touch that it all still comes across as simplistic and routine. Indeed, if this was a book, it wouldn't be the mass of pages filled with meaty minutiae — it'd be the generic synopsis, designed to sweep readers in, on the back cover.

Payne's feat will always echo throughout history, and so will the fortitude it took to get there, but Ride Like a Girl doesn't quite do her justice. That's not a criticism of Teresa Palmer, though, who puts in a performance not quite on par with her excellent work in Berlin Syndrome, but one filled with depths that the script doesn't match. As Payne's dad, a suitably stoic Sam Neill falls in step with with movie rather than his co-star; however the jockey's real-life brother Stevie, who plays himself, is an engaging delight. His casting feels real, a sensation that's missing from Ride Like a Girl elsewhere — for an inspiring true tale, it generally just feels manufactured.

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