The Cup

Director: Simon Wincer
Starring: Stephen Curry, Daniel MacPherson, Brendan Gleeson, Jodi Gordon, and Colleen Hewett.
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Runtime: 106 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mild themes and coarse language

Not to be confused with a 1999 movie of the same name about Tibetan monks playing football, this movie is an Australian production, which pays homage to the iconic status of The Melbourne Cup, a race that routinely stops the nation in the first week of November each year. The 2002 Melbourne Cup was special. The nation had been shocked by the Bali bombings less than a month earlier, and was looking to escape, as it is wont to do, into the thrills of sport. Security was tight at Flemington racecourse in 2002, and nerves were on edge. Events on the racetrack that day were suddenly all that mattered.

The film is the true story of Jason Oliver (Daniel MacPherson) and Damien Oliver (Stephen Curry), who were brothers and best mates. They rode together and competed against each other for horse-racing glory. One week prior to the running of The Cup, a tragic track incident claimed Jason’s life. The horse Jason was riding, ironically named Savage Cabbage, broke a foreleg and crashed to the track at Perth’s Belmont Park. Jason was rushed to Royal Perth Hospital, where he died. The heart of Australia went out, and Damien faced inner demons telling him not to ride again.

The film brilliantly portrays Damien’s grief and acute sense of loss, and the courage that was necessary for him to return. His race to victory in 2002 was a triumph over adversity, and a demonstration of great personal courage that captured the heart of the nation. It is perhaps the most emotional moment in the history of The Cup, when the Irish horse that he rode, Media Puzzle, won convincingly over other horses in the race, it being only the second time in the Cup’s 142-year history that a foreign horse had won The Melbourne Cup. The tragic past was resurrected emotionally again, some years later, for those with the memory, when feisty Media Puzzle was put down after shattering a leg near the finish line of the Ascot Gold Cup in 2006.

Stephen Curry is excellent as Damien Oliver, and Irish-born and past award-winner, Brendan Gleeson brilliantly takes the role of Media Puzzle’s trainer, Dermot Weld, who acts out the expectations and hopes of a trainer who desperately wants his horse to win, but understands what Damien is going through and must be feeling. For Dermot, only Damien could win the cup, and only Media Puzzle could win with him. He shows respect for Damien, but it is the memory of Jason that provides the major source of hope and inspiration for Damien to take the saddle once more. Jodi Gordon attractively takes the role of Damien’s partner, Trish, who wants to support whatever decision Damien makes, and Colleen Hewett is heart-wrenching as Damien’s mother, who, 27 years before, tragically lost her husband, Ray, and now has lost her son, Jason, both in racing falls.

The outcome of the movie is known as a historic fact, but the thrill that the film engenders is not affected at all by our prior knowledge of how the race finished. This is a movie, technically suitable for children (on advice), but is suited very much for adult and adolescent viewing. It is an arguable fact that gambling is in the blood of most Australians, and horse racing, and The Melbourne Cup, in particular, has a very special place. The Cup is the one sporting event that stops everyone working when it runs, and nobody in Australia seems to mind.

In the movie, Simon Wincer (who directed “Phar Lap” in 1983) shows a firm, convincing hand in his direction. The scenes of those watching the race are particularly well done. Wincer integrates archival footage, and the camera captures extremely well the thrill of the sport, which is heightened by the emotional drama. The film has something of the motivational power and pull of “Chariots of Fire” (1981). Those watching the race held their breath for Damien Oliver to win, and the nation exulted in his victory, when he did.

This is an excellent movie, Australian Cinema should be proud to own.

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