Black Beauty (2 stars)

Black Beauty

Kate Winslet lends her voice to the titular horse in a pretty cringeworthy reimagining

Before you panic, Kate Winslet hasn't gone down the Andy Serkis route and got suited up to motion capture her performance as an animal. But that might have been better, given the total inexpressiveness of the beast in question. With the horse refusing to pull its weight dramatically, it's down to the Oscar-winner to do the heavy lifting as the voice of Black Beauty, opting for a cloying, not terribly convincing American accent as she narrates its story, and giving it frankly too much in her efforts to convey a tumultuous life.

Writer-director Ashley Avis is behind Disney's update of Anna Sewell's 1877 novel, heavily reimagining the story and transposing the action to America, but still finding room for a bafflingly located enclave of dastardly English folk. Following the death of her mother, a wild mare is purchased by twinkly-eyed ranch hand John Manly (Iain Glen), who ends up with a second young rebel to tame when his orphaned teenage niece Jo (Mackenzie Foy) arrives, who connects with and names the horse. When Beauty is hired out to the aforementioned English clan, Jo goes with her, where she butts heads with spoilt rider Georgina (Fern Deacon) and falls for the smarmy charms of her brother George (Calam Lynch, whose main acting move involves the raising and lowering of one eyebrow), and there's more anguish and excitement to come.

As Andrew Haigh's recent Lean on Pete showed, as it perfectly captured the comfort a troubled teen derives from his bond with the titular racehorse, this kind of filmmaking doesn't have to make you cringe. Sadly, Avis is minded to keep things staunchly sentimental, going heavy on the lens flare (it's like it's trying to blind you with loveliness), hard on the life lessons (delivered mainly by Glen, who always seems to be angling to impart some wisdom) and overboard on the cliches. On the other hand, the film is more sparing in its sense; it's in such a hurry to cram in drama, before pivoting madly to its happy ending, that nothing rings true, while characters are straightforwardly good or bad. Foy does what she can and there are enough nice horses for equine enthusiasts to have a ball, but everyone else might find it pretty embarrassing.

Available to watch on Disney+ from Fri 27 Nov.

Black Beauty

  • 2 stars
  • 2020
  • US / UK / South Africa / Germany / France
  • Directed by: Ashley Avis
  • Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Kate Winslet, Claire Forlani, Iain Glen, Fern Deacon
  • UK release: 27 November 2020