Ride Like a Girl Review
The Melbourne Cup began in 1861 and takes place on the first Tuesday of November at the Flemington Racecourse. It is a race for horses three years old and over and is the richest two-mile race in the world and reckoned to be the toughest. No woman had won it until 2015, when Michelle Payne did on her horse Prince of Penzance.
No doubt particularly conscious that it’s based on real and recent events with most of the principals still alive, Ride Like a Girl begins in documentary mode, with the opening credits appearing amidst captions and video footage of the real Michelle Payne and her family. The Melbourne Cup is tied into the history of Australian cinema from its outset, with the first moving pictures ever shot in the country being of the 1896 race. Right at the start of the film, we see the 1931 win by the legendary Phar Lap, who had his own biopic made in 1983. Then, as the cast names appear on screen, we switch to dramatisation mode and stay there until the final credits run.
Michelle Payne (Teresa Palmer, with Summer North playing her as a child) was born in 1985, the youngest of ten children. At the age of six months, Michelle lost her mother in a car accident, leaving father Paddy (Sam Neill) to bring up all the children on his own. Michelle is closest to the next-youngest, Stevie, who has Down’s Syndrome. (As an adult, Stevie is played by the man himself.) Eight out of the ten children became riders. Michelle dreamed from an early age that she would be a rider too, and one day might even win the Melbourne Cup…
Written by Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie, directed by Rachel Griffiths, Ride Like a Girl follows a standard biopic structure. We follow Michelle’s progress from childhood where her interest in horse racing causes her teachers at convent school to despair. Among them is Sister Dominique, played by Magda Szubanski, who steals most of the scenes she’s in. The setbacks Michelle experienced are clearly signposted, including the death of her older sister Brigid in a riding accident and a nasty fall in 2004 which fractured Michelle’s skull and nearly killed her. The film also has a clear-eyed view of the sexism Michelle experienced as a woman in a male-dominated sport, beginning with a stable-hand offering her a ride of a horse in return for a ride of another kind, and plenty of people dismissing the very possibility of a woman winning a race like the Cup. Not for nothing does Griffith emphasise more than once the “Lady Jockeys” changing area at the various racecourses in the story: completely empty other than for Michelle. The film does avoid some of the short cuts that many such biopics use: there’s no need for any romantic subplot, for starters. It’s quite clear that the closest human relationship we see Michelle have is with her own brother, whose affinity with horses is obvious and is reckoned to be the best “strapper” in the business.
Yet if this does tread familiar ground – for all that it’s based on a true story – it’s still a good story and it’s well told. The racing footage – shot by a separate unit with racing doubles – is first rate, and makes use of many of the major racecourses in Victoria other than Flemington, including Ballarat and a very recognisable Hanging Rock. This is the feature-film debut for Rachel Griffiths, after two shorts and three television episodes, and she does a fine job of making us the audience invested in Michelle’s goal over an hour and a half, and in her triumph. Griffiths makes a brief uncredited appearance in the film as a nun.
Released in Australian cinemas on 18 September 2019, Ride Like a Girl was a commercial hit, reaching number one at the Australian box office for its opening weekend. It picked up three AACTA Award nominations, for Best Film (won by the much darker and certainly not family-friendly The Nightingale), for Teresa Palmer and for David Hirschfelder’s music score. Commercial success in Australia didn’t translate to a UK cinema release, even if the Covid-19 pandemic hadn’t closed cinemas worldwide. In the UK, Lionsgate released Ride Like a Girl to stream on 26 June 2020 and on DVD (not Blu-ray) on 10 August.
Transmission’s Blu-ray release (there’s also a DVD) is a single disc, encoded for Region B only. The film has an Australian PG rating, which is the same certificate it bears in the UK.
Ride Like a Girl was shot digitally, on the Panasonic Varicam 35, and is transferred to Blu-ray in its intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1. As this production has been digital from start to finish (unless any 35mm prints were struck, but I doubt it), you’d expect the transfer to look pristine and it does. The colours in Martin McGrath’s cinematography are strong and I’ve no doubt this would have looked much the same if I’d seen it in the cinema as a DCP.
You could have heard the film in Dolby Atmos in some cinemas, but on disc it’s DTS-HD MA 5.1. It’s not on this evidence one to give your speakers and subwoofer a workout, but there is quite a bit of use of the surrounds, especially with the music score and/or in the racing scenes. Also on this disc is an audio-descriptive track in DTS-HD MA 2.0. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing on the feature only, and I didn’t detect any errors in them.
The extras are eight featurettes, with self-descriptive titles: “Sam Meets Paddy Payne” (4:45), “Teresa Meets Michelle Payne” (2:16), “Casting Young Michelle” (1:33), “Teresa Learns to Ride” (1:53), “Chris and the Horses” (focusing on the head of the racing unit Chris Symons, 2:11), “Stevie Payne as Stevie Payne” (2:22), “Inside the Race” (24:57), “Rachel Griffiths: Director” (4:52). As you can see from the running times, these are mostly short EPK-style items, mixing interviews with on-set footage and extracts from the finished film. “Inside the Race” goes into more detail on its subject, focusing on the work of the second unit shooting the race scenes, in particular that of the director/DP Jamie Doolan.