Originally released 19 Jul 1978
Written and directed by Bryan Forbes
Starring Tatum O’Neal, Nanette Newman, Anthony Hopkins, and Christopher Plummer
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
A family film of surprising character depth set in the world of competitive equestrian.
International Velvet tries to be many things. It tries to be a sequel to a beloved classic. It tries to be a coming-of-age movie. It tries to be a charming animal movie. It tries to be the kind of relationship-based drama that was popular in the 1970s. It tries to be a sports movie. It is as remarkably ambitious as it is shameless in trying to bank the popularity of National Velvet. Surprisingly, it succeeds at most of what it tries to do.
Set about thirty years after National Velvet, International Velvet finds Velvet Brown (Nanette Newman in the role Elizabeth Taylor made famous), middle-aged, living a quiet country life with her life-companion, John Seaton (Christopher Plummer), a writer. Her brother Donny (the little boy in the first movie), who had immigrated to America several years earlier, and his wife have died, leaving behind a preteen daughter, Sarah (Tatum O’Neal). Sarah, a sullen, unhappy girl, comes to live with Velvet and John, and, at first, the situation is miserable for everyone. But, she and Velvet find common ground in their love of horseback riding. Velvet’s famous horse, The Pie, sires one last foal, and Sarah dreams of owning him.
The film changes once the foal, whom Sarah christens Arizona Pie, becomes Sarah’s. What had been a movie about Sarah bonding with the horse and her new family becomes one about competition. The movie lacks cohesion. But, I’m not too critical of the episodic feel of the film because the individual episodes are engrossing. (The sequence about young men bullying Sarah with their car, however, seems particularly unnecessary and disconnected from the main narrative.) One of the best episodes in the film involves the British equestrian team’s ill-fated trip to a competition in America. The conflicts in that segment alone could have supported an entire film. International Velvet would work well as a limited series, with each episode developed more fully. Unfortunately, equestrian isn’t a popular enough sport for that to happen.
While sports movies abound, few are about equestrian, a distinct sport from horse racing. Equestrian is the only Olympic sport where men and women compete on equal terms, yet no movie has taken advantage of the dramatic possibilities of that situation. Neither does this one. However, it does an excellent job of taking us inside the world of competitive equestrian. It’s not one we often see in films. The film gives us enough detail that we feel that we understand the sport, not just the story. The phenomenal performance by Anthony Hopkins as the coach of the British equestrian team helps bring us into that world. Hopkins wasn’t yet an international star when this film was released, but, at the time, he had all the skill and charisma that make him one of the greatest film actors of all time.
The other three main performances, those of O’Neal, Newman (wife of director Bryan Forbes), and Plummer, are also top notch. O’Neal was only 14 when this movie was made, and she demonstrates a mature ability to create a character of depth, a talent that made her the go-to actress for coming-of-age films at the time. Newman and Plummer benefit from a script that develops their characters beyond bland, but necessary guardian figures. They have their own issues and internal lives, and both performers present those qualities handily enough to make the characters of interest to the audience in their own right.
If there’s one area where the movie falters it is as a successor to National Velvet. Essentially, it’s a sequel in name only. Yes, Velvet appears as a major character in the film, but she bears little resemblance to the role Elizabeth Taylor played. She is contemplative and disappointed. In the voice over narration discussing Sarah, Velvet says, “All I hoped was she wouldn’t win too early and afterwards have nowhere to go.” With this line, Velvet could be talking about her own life. It’s hardly the type of future that fans of the original film would envision for her. Furthermore, International Velvet contemporizes the story. National Velvet, despite its release in 1945, was set in the 1920s. International Velvet takes place about 30 years after the events of the original but is set in the mid-1970s, 30 years after the time when the original came out, but not after the time when it took place. Finally, and most significantly, the tone is radically different. While the original has the feel of blithe Classic Hollywood features, International Velvet is the kind of pensive, character-driven drama that was popular in the 1970s.
Yet, the differences between International Velvet and its predecessor aren’t necessarily a detriment to the later film unless the viewer is expecting it to recreate the experience of the original. I prefer the maturity and complexity of International Velvet to the simplicity of National Velvet. International Velvet features many elements that are usually considered flaws, such as a meandering narrative, an episodic structure, and a script that employs voice-over narration. However, the film doesn’t just manage to overcome them; through some alchemy, they become strengths. It remains a creatively successful sports and character drama.