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Film Review: International Velvet

International Velvet (1978; Directed by Bryan Forbes)

If you live with a horse fancier, eventually you’re probably going to have to sit through International Velvet. A sort-of sequel to 1944’s National Velvet, which starred a young Elizabeth Taylor as a pre-teen equestrian sensation, this is glossy equine pornography that is also awash with British rural romanticism at its most cornball.

Tatum O'Neal is the fifth member of Kraftwerk

The story focuses on young orphaned heroine Sarah Brown (Tatum O’Neal). Born and raised in Arizona, Sarah’s parents are killed in a car crash, and she ends up living with her aunt Velvet (Nanette Newman), the plucky but mildly sad adult version of Taylor’s character in the original (try to imagine Taylor herself taking the role in this movie, and wait for your head to stop spinning). Despite the fact that Velvet dwells on a rambling country farm amidst an idyllic English coastal landscape, Sarah is sullen and withdrawn and resists Velvet’s attempts to earn her affection. Because girls just love ponies, relations begin to thaw over The Pie, Velvet’s champion horse, and especially over the stud’s last foal, whom Sarah names Arizona Pie after Velvet buys him for her. Supported emotionally by Velvet and financially by her aunt’s live-in life partner John Seaton (Christopher Plummer), Sarah pursues serious equestrian competition with a single-minded focus, eventually making the British Olympic team coached by Captain Johnson (Anthony Hopkins) and helping them win a team eventing gold medal at the Games.

Although International Velvet could not be mistaken by anyone for a film that is really any good, it’s not all soft-focus barn-rat wish fulfillment. It’s mostly that, yes; veteran Brit director Bryan Forbes shoots the early establishing scenes of impossibly green fields and crepescular-ray-lit horseflesh with a demure lasciviousness, but he reigns in the animal magnetism of the loyal steeds as quickly as he can. There are many moments of Tatum O’Neal chatting precociously with her horse and riding it through the bubbling surf (surely its legs would be at risk on such soft ground?) that may set the pony-loving tweens aflutter but are far from endearing.

O’Neal was an acclaimed child actor in her day, but her unsubtle emoting and turgid line readings reek of the amateurish when set against the eerie professionalism of the current crop of Fannings and other triple-named thespian minors. There’s also pretty much no tension to be found in the proceedings. Sure, Sarah is held back as an alternate, her horse is ridden by more experienced teammates, she falls in the cross country, etc. But there’s never much doubt that she’ll triumph on horseback and in life, simultaneously winning the gold and the affections of a Yank rider hunk (Jeffrey Byron) and accepting her surrogate family as a genuine one.

But it’s not all quite so fluffy. The harsh physical consequences of the equestrian pursuit are not shied away from: Sarah falls and injures a shoulder in one competition, and her teammate’s horse must be destroyed after it loses its shit on an airplane trip to another one. It may look prim and stuffed-shirt-ish on television, but equestrian carries no less corporeal danger than more nakedly violent sports like football or hockey, and International Velvet acknowledges far more of that than ought to be expected of a children’s film about how awesome horsies are.

Furthermore, the presence of actors the calibre of Hopkins and Plummer veritably puts a bridle and lead on this reluctant filly of a movie and leads it against its will into the stable of respectability. Hopkins’ Johnson makes a big deal after Sarah’s first trial of how stern and frightening he is, but turns out to be an erudite, sarcastic British old boy with a knobbly sense of empathy. Hopkins, still young and hungry enough in the late ’70s to bring his all to such a decidedly non-plum role, is perfectly suited to the Captain’s sharp-tongued thoughtfulness. Plummer strides through the film with quite a different and decidedly sexual energy, eschewing the folly of not only the top shirt button but, on one occasion of tame-enough talky foreplay with his lover Velvet, the whole shirt altogether (Bears of the world, rejoice!). It seems another odd choice for a children’s film, to have a fairly honest and open portrayal of an adult physical relationship in a kiddie-flick, especially when compared to the entirely chaste courtship of Sarah and her beau, which includes nary a kiss. But then maybe that’s just what you get with an actor of such undeniable libido as Plummer.

Such minor digressions aside, International Velvet tends towards the easy and the fuzzy, unspooling with a pillowy inevitability and mostly untroubled by conflict or obstacles. The voice-over narration from Newman and Hopkins imparts the story with a fable-like quality, detaching it from any intruding realities like mortality, sexual awakening, or financial hardship while simultaneously reducing Sarah’s voice in her own narrative. Even when International Velvet strains to be pretty, it’s only merely pleasant. Little wonder that it’s mostly been put out to pasture by subsequent generations, if not shipped straight to the glue factory.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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