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Ride Like a Girl

"A celebration of human determination in the face of tragedy"

★★★★ - STUFF 

- Michelle Payne was born the youngest of 10 kids in a virtual dynasty of jockeys and trainers, somewhere in the rolling hills near the town of Ballarat, where the sun pours, treacle-like, over the horizon just in time to catch the sweat-crusted flanks of the next champion nag thundering o'er the plains.

Or something like that. The truth is, legendary Aussie cinematographer Martin McGrath (Muriel's Wedding) adorns Ride Like a Girl with such an excess of ludicrously beautiful landscapes, it very nearly threatens to turn the film into not much more than a tourism brochure for the State of Victoria and a very high-budget puff piece for the Australian racing industry.

And it would have been a shame if that had been allowed to happen. Because, beneath the layers of pulchritudinous sunsets, beachscapes and gently mist-veiled country race tracks, director Rachel Griffiths (making her feature directing debut) has a very decent yarn to work with in Ride Like a Girl. And it's one that is being pretty well told.

Payne rode Prince of Penzance to glory in the 2015 Melbourne Cup. She was the first female jockey to win the "race-that-stops-a-nation". To do so, she had to overcome a generation of Aussie blokes and blokesses who would never believe that a woman had the strength, guile or ambition to triumph in a race that is regarded as the world's toughest 3200 metres. (Oddly, this misogyny never extended to the horses. Mares and fillies have won the cup many times.)

As Ride Like a Girl tells it, Payne grew up determined to be a Group One jockey from the time she could sit in a saddle. She watched, dismayed, as her sisters married and gave up on their careers, while her brothers were promoted up the ranks in a way that left her in no doubt her path would be a lot easier if she had been born a boy.

In the lead, Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge) plays Payne with plenty of vim and steel and not many of the concessions to self-doubt that Hollywood convention usually expects of its young heroines. Next to her, as dad Paddy Payne, Sam Neill is his reliable self, toggling from twinkling to lugubrious, knowing the character demands bugger-all in between.

Ride Like a Girl is a solid retelling of a story that is unavoidably moving and triumphal. If you're expecting much in the way of criticism of the racing industry and the hideous toll it exacts on horses, then you'll leave disappointed. But as a celebration of human determination in the face of tragedy, it's hard not to recommend.

By the end, if there was a dry eye in the house, it certainly didn't belong to me.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

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