Perhaps the greatest advantage for writers Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie is that Payne’s life prior to finding fame is inherently fascinating. The youngest of ten children raised by a widowed father (Sam Neill), Michelle grew up surrounded by horses and quickly developed a keen love for them. Simultaneously, the Payne clan are all shown to be devoted fans of racing; their kitchen even has a whiteboard listing everyone’s scheduled events, including track, horse and placing. While these early scenes are charming, I was pleasantly surprised by the script’s brisk pace which gives each moment the right amount of focus. For instance, seeing a young Michelle (Summer North) watch the Melbourne Cup on TV at school is a sweet display of her passion, but rightly isn’t lingered on as a significant event.
RIDE LIKE A GIRL really hits its stride in the second act as Michelle reaches the end of high school. Having watched seven siblings embark on careers as jockeys with varying levels of success, the youngest Payne wants nothing more than to begin her own. Teresa Palmer takes over the role of Michelle from here onwards and is simply brilliant, capturing the palpable frustration of being told she’s not ready and receiving often contradictory advice. When Michelle later moves to Melbourne, neither Palmer nor the script idealise the struggles faced by female jockeys looking for their start. The film takes lengths to show just how little confidence trainers have in women’s abilities, even when they come from well-known racing families. In fact, one trainer openly offers Michelle work in exchange for sex. While this is (hopefully) a composite character, the anger and devastation on Palmer’s face affirm the unfortunate relatability of institutional chauvinism.
Alongside Palmer, Sam Neill is a standout as the laconic Paddy Payne. In my opinion, Neill is an actor who often appears to simply be playing himself rather than fully immersing into a role. I don’t mean this as an insult, merely a comment on how easily his offscreen charisma is transplanted into a film. His turn as Paddy is no exception, exuding warmth and affection even during arguments with his children. However, when a horrific injury sees Michelle hospitalised and comatose, Neill also reaches impressive emotional depths. Paddy’s regret at their strained relationship, fear of losing a child and cautious optimism during her recovery are heart-wrenchingly clear. Similarly, Palmer’s convincing portrayal of the physical and emotional toll of the accident make these scenes utterly compelling yet hard to watch.
Thankfully, the presence of Stevie Payne offers some moments of levity. Given how often Stevie appeared in the real-life coverage of Michelle’s victory, it’s fitting that he’s also such a central figure here. The less obvious choice is to have Payne play himself, which could’ve come across as stunt casting in the hands of a less capable actor. From his first moments onscreen Stevie feels like a natural choice, often providing the film’s biggest laughs with excellent comedic timing and a laidback attitude. He also inadvertently leads Michelle to Prince of Penzance, the horse she would ultimately ride in the Cup.
Although the character-driven moments in RIDE LIKE A GIRL are where it shines, the horse racing sequences deserve to be singled out for their incredible camerawork. Indeed, the sheer level of choreography required for these to work is likely on par with an action film, and just as entertaining. Director Rachel Griffiths shows a clear consideration for which angles to focus on, shifting frequently from behind the horses’ legs, to a camera on the back of a horse looking back at riders, to anxious spectators. There’s even footage from the actual 2015 Melbourne Cup broadcast seamlessly woven into the film during its climactic final race!
Considering how much I loved about this film, my one issue with it feels relatively minor. Nevertheless, I always relish the chance to complain about how restrictive the biopic genre can be. Most egregiously, Griffiths and the writers evidently couldn’t decide which cliché opening they wanted to use: a montage of footage featuring the real-life subject, or a time jump to quickly preview the emotional climax. As a result, we get both a selection of Payne family home videos, and a brief scene of Palmer as Payne at the starting gates of the Melbourne Cup. This is not only uninspired, but abrupt and confusing. After all, most people who watch RIDE LIKE A GIRL will already know how it ends. It’s a testament to the film, and Michelle Payne herself that the story preceding it is so engaging and triumphant.