The Rocking Horse Winner is a film of unusual power, a strange, nightmarish study that ends in tragedy. Based on a short story by D.H Lawrence it is about a middle class family where the parents are completely dysfunctional, and the terrible impact it has on their eldest son, poor, lonely, super sensitive Paul.
Mother and Father are absolutely infuriating: they drink too much, they spend too much, Dad is a gambler who can’t be arsed to stay in a job and Mum is a snob who has to have the latest styles despite the fact that she can’t afford them. Worst of all, they don’t seem to feel the need to change, and never learn from their mistakes so, no matter how many cheques they bounce, valuables they pawn or bailiffs they have to pay off, they just carry on living beyond their means. Being completely self-obsessed, they don’t notice the effect this has on their sensitive son, Paul, who has become fixated on becoming ‘lucky’ and, when he’s in bed at night, can hear the house whispering ‘there must be more money, there must be more money’. Poor little bugger.
Paul’s only friend is Bassett (John Mills, brilliant), the gardener / chauffer / odd job man / surrogate father, a wily ex-jockey who teaches him how to ride using a large, scary looking rocking horse the kids got for Christmas.
When Paul finds out that Bassett goes to the bookies every day, he gives his pocket money to the initially reluctant Bassett to place a bet, hoping to be able to bolster the family coffers. As it turns out, Paul is ‘lucky’, and has an unerring instinct for picking winners. In a few weeks, Paul and Bassett have several thousand pounds and Paul’s Uncle Oscar arranges for this money to be paid to Paul’s parents in the guise of an inheritance. Unfortunately, the extra cash does not relieve the situation, it exacerbates it: feeling flush, the fools spend more than ever, and the cycle begins again.
Paul becomes strange and driven, more and more obsessed with being ‘sure’, desperate to win more money, to be ‘lucky’. As Derby day approaches, Paul becomes utterly fixated on finding the winner, intending to stake everything they have on the outcome.
The night before the race, Paul’s Mother finds him frenziedly riding the rocking horse back and forth, exhausted and in a trance, a clairvoyant altered state where he is somehow able to find the winners name. He collapses, but reveals the name of the winner before passing out. Bassett places the bet and they win £80,000, alleviating the family’s financial problems. Paul dies, and Bassett burns the horse.
‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ is an atmospheric and affecting film, one that moves the viewer from anger to unease to dread and, finally, to tears. The performances are uniformly good, and they need to be, as it’s an extremely complex situation: Paul’s parents are awful people who should never have had children, for instance, but they are not terrible or cruel, simply selfish and stupid. Similarly, Bassett and Uncle Oscar aid and abet Paul without ever really notice the pressure he is under - what is a lark to them is a matter of life and death to him. In the end, the whole thing is simply teribly sad. It can be a terrible place, really, childhood. I was one of the lucky ones and even I'm glad I don't have to go there anymore.