'Secretariat' (PG)

Forget about the horse. The real prize-winner in Disney’s Secretariat is Diane Lane.

The versatile actress makes a run for Oscar roses as Penny Chenery Tweedy, an unlikely icon of the ’70s horse-racing world. To her role as a cooks-and-cleans housewife who emerges as the surprise owner of a 1973 Triple Crown winner, Lane brings the incandescent beauty of Tippi Hedren and the acting grace of Ellen Burstyn.

Even when Secretariat wobbles like a newborn foal – a cheesy opening drips with NutraSweet and strained relationships are resolved too patly – Lane takes the reins and gallops this baby over the finish line.

In tone and intent, Secretariat shares the DNA of The Blind Side, last year’s megahit. Each takes cues from the real world and presents families with a neatly packaged inspirational feature anchored around a strong female character with convictions and moxie to spare.

Yet Secretariat is also cut from the Disney sports-movie cloth, with facts tailored to ensure the studio has a crowd-pleaser. No matter. This is a rousingly entertaining and robustly acted movie with electrifying horse-racing sequences filmed from the jockey’s perspective.

Director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) and screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie) take a marginal risk by focusing on their heroine’s pluck and her resolve to make a name for herself in a male-dominated sport rather than spending more time on Big Red – aka Secretariat – the trophy horse Penny wins in a coin toss. That might not appease the My Friend Flicka crowd, but I appreciated the more-human, less-equine storyline.

Penny’s entree into the boys club of horse racing occurs as the country’s on the cusp of change over war, sex and gender roles. She doesn’t realize it, but her actions challenge the status quo of what a woman can achieve as she tries to save her ailing father’s Virginia stables. As played by Lane, Penny comes across as driven and practical, but someone not above using her charms to get what she wants.

To turn “Big Red” into a trophy winner, Penny has to clear a number of obstacles. A money-focused brother (Dylan Baker) who wants to sell the biz after their dad (Scott Glenn) dies and a hubby (Dylan Walsh) who appreciates the starched tradition of a wife’s role compound her problems.

Each of the actors in those thankless, naysaying parts does serviceable work. Lane gets her greatest on-screen assist from John Malkovich, joyously goofy as her fashion disaster of a trainer, Lucien Laurin. Malkovich is a hoot as the eccentric Lucien, who initially balks at working with Penny. He and reliable character actress Margo Martindale – as Penny’s assistant – provide welcome humor.

They’re both terrific, but each exists in Lane’s shadow. Like so many other films she’s been in – from Under the Tuscan Sun to UnfaithfulSecretariat winds up not only her win but also her show.

Cast: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale.

Director: Randall Wallace.

Screenwriter: Mike Rich. Based on the book by William Nack.

Producers: Mark Ciardi, Pete DeStefano, Gordon Gray.

A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 116 minutes. Brief mild language. Playing at area theaters.


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