The Cup (Australia, 2011)
Directed by: Simon Wincer
Written by: Simon Wincer and Eric O’Keefe
Starring: Stephen Curry, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Burlinson, Daniel MacPherson
Before reading this review, please take a few minutes to watch this clip from YouTube:
Now, feel free to send me a letter of thanks because I have just saved you from spending 106 minutes and upwards of $15 on one of the worst Australian dramas you’re ever likely to see.
The Cup, the sprawling dramatisation of Damien Oliver’s 2002 Melbourne Cup win directed by noted equinophile Simon Wincer (Phar Lap, The Man from Snowy River), somehow manages to turn one of Melbourne’s most emotionally-charged sporting events of the last decade into a turgid exercise in soppy melodrama, dragging with it the reputations of some very highly-regarded actors.
I know you probably want to see it, and I know it looks like it might be good. The dazzling cast includes Stephen Curry, Brendan Gleeson and Tom Burlinson, the trailer has a lot of beautiful people watching some very exciting horse races, and, I mean, come on… it’s based on a story that sounds far more dramatic than anything a filmmaker could conjure.
If you’re not from Melbourne, or are from Melbourne but fell into an unfortunately-timed coma in November 2002, Damien Oliver’s story really is ridiculously cinematic: growing up without a father after his died in a race fall when he was a child, Damien is devastated when his older brother Jason dies, also in a fall, seven days before the nation’s biggest horse race. Whether he’ll ride the Irish horse Media Puzzle in the Melbourne Cup becomes front-page news around a country still reeling from a terrorist attack in Bali three weeks earlier, in which North Melbourne footballer Jason McCartney became an instant hero by saving many others’ lives while suffering second-degree burns in the process.
It’s a story that should have been impossible not to adapt into at least a halfway decent film, especially with a respectable cast of mid-level international stars and solid Aussie TV actors, but don’t get drawn in. The cast looks sturdy on paper, and the sequence of events generally follows the amazing true-to-life story, but even Gleeson and friends are helpless to improve a script which even Home & Away‘s writers would find a little melodramatic and expository. In fact, the whole affair feels disconcertingly like an Australian TV soap, with characters dressed sharply in designer clothing and immaculate make-up flitting about in the stainless-steel-and-glass paradises that are the kitchens of inner-city apartments, explaining their feelings at each other in aching monologue.
In one particularly memorable scene, Damien visits Jason McCartney in the hospital, and McCartney’s “second-degree burns to 50% of his body” are rendered as what looks like a bit of dry skin around his neck and arms because, clearly, the makeup department wouldn’t dare disturb the perfection of Rodger Corser’s face, lest he be unable to tearfully explain what an inspiration Damien had been in his recovery. Another is the scene in which Mrs. Oliver is shown sobbing, alone, in the back of a church, talking out loud to a picture of her deceased husband, telling him about how Jason’s death has affected her. Even on paper it sounds corny, but I can assure you that it’s much worse than it sounds.
Action swings from Australia to Ireland and Dubai in increasingly unnecessary expansions of the plot, introducing more and more characters who have little bearing on the events of the film and who prompt several “why are you even here?” moments. Among the most frustrating is the appearance of several real-life journalists and racing identities at every press conference, who pop up for no reason other than to encourage talent agency directors that their actors will not soon be out of work.
The UAE’s Godolphin racing stable is represented by the billionaire Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Raj Sidhu) and his horse trainer Saeed Bin Suroor (Harli Ames), who occasionally turn up with their well-fancied horse Pugin to half-heartedly remind viewers that it’s not guaranteed that Oliver will triumph, but of course anyone with even a basic knowledge of sports films knows how the film ends, making their appearances entirely superfluous.
And Shaun Micallef’s Lee Freedman – a sort of mentor to the Oliver brothers, whose primary function in The Cup is to act as a sounding-board for Damien while he verbalises his inner tensions – is another whose character could have been merged with another – say, Damien’s manager Neil Pinner (Martin Sacks) – to trim some of the flab and allow the film to focus on Damien’s cathartic journey.
But flabby the film is, and as a result of all the faffing about discussing feelings on three separate continents, we are subjected to some of the least-subtle exposition I can remember in order to actually get us to the Melbourne Cup. For this, Wincer busts out the old conveniently informative news story – possibly the laziest of all script-writing techniques – and never have I seen it used so often in a single film. Stephen Quartermain and Peter Hitchener have more screen time than even the principal characters’ wives as they attempt to do the film’s heavy lifting, driving the story between the teary dramatic scenes and the horse riding.
Speaking of which, there are some wonderfully kinetic racing sequences which blend archival footage with recreations, but less successful is the ludicrous scene set at a football game between North Melbourne and West Coast which will go down as one of the worst attempts to splice actors into found footage ever seen. Since Jason McCartney is played by Corser later in the film he had to be inserted into shots of the football game somehow, but the jarring transition from the archival footage to the recreation – which consists of Corser lethargically going for a mark over a bunch of out-of-shape extras in K-Mart football uniforms – sticks out like an Arabian prince at an Australian horse race.
Equally unconvincing is the “commentary box” from which Eddie Maguire and Dennis Cometti (playing themselves) commentate the football match, which looks more like the backstage area of a luxurious English theatre, complete with a lone audio technician and one of those big theatrical mirrors surrounded by light bulbs. This may seem like an insignificant annoyance, but these dodgy elements permeate the film and only serve to confirm viewers’ prejudices against locally-made fare. It’s terribly sad that this, this, is the late Bill Hunter’s final screen credit.
Damien Oliver is a tremendously inspirational person, somehow finding the mental and physical strength to perform at the highest level of his chosen sport mere days after the life-shattering loss of his only brother. He had people all over Australia pumping fists and high-fiving after his most famous of victories, and yet the film version of his story will attract only sighs of disappointment and comparisons to Heroes’ Mountain, the telemovie retelling of the Thredbo landslide starring Craig McLachlin. Negative comparisons, that is.
If you’re considering seeing The Cup, stay home and spend 20 minutes on YouTube instead. You’ll get more realistic drama out of that than you would out of this so-called dramatised account, and it’ll be free.