Kenneth Turan likes the film okay, but he reserves most of his praise for Diane Lane:
The third and likely most significant factor in the success of “Secretariat” is Diane Lane’s crucial performance as Penny Chenery, who owned the horse and was a trailblazer in a male-dominated world that was unapologetically unfriendly to women with power.
Because Secretariat did not face serious challenges once he hit his Triple Crown stride, the obstacles no film can do without had to be in the human arena. That meant a focus on Chenery having to prove herself to her brother, her husband and her children as well as to the racing elite, confrontations that give the film an unexpected Hollywood feminism slant that will likely not hurt at the box office.
Oscar-nominated for “Unfaithful,” Lane has been a familiar and welcome face to moviegoers since her 1979 debut in “A Little Romance.” She is an actress with an instinct for honesty, someone incapable of false moves, and her restrained, focused performance as Chenery is a graceful stabilizing force here. In an unashamed movie that can’t resist pushing too hard, having someone who pulls things back toward reality is more than welcome ‚Äî it’s essential.
And, of course, one can’t help but get caught up in the races:
What saves her, and the movie, are those Triple Crown races that Secretariat dominated in historic style. With veteran cinematographer Dean Semler behind the camera, when those pounding hoofs come flying down the track, it’s hard not to be happy that you are there to watch them fly.
Meanwhile, on the other coast, Manohla Dargis gives it a whirl. Hers is a little more of a cryptic response, though not as scathing as one might think.
Alas, Ms. Lane, smoothed and nearly emptied out, doesn‚Äôt have the material or direction that Sandra Bullock enjoyed in ‚ÄúThe Blind Side‚Äù (or the flattering costumes). Penny Chenery‚Äôs story is not uninteresting, and she certainly doesn‚Äôt appear to have been the paper doll of the movie. The real woman hired the William Morris Agency to book Secretariat‚Äôs appearances, and said of her horse-racing life, ‚ÄúI love the prestige, the excitement and the money.‚Äù The movie‚Äôs Penny spends a lot of time fretting and every so often stares meaningfully into Secretariat‚Äôs eyes (or muzzle). That said, in one mad, delicious moment, she does bathe Secretariat alongside his black groom, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis, from HBO‚Äôs ‚ÄúTrue Blood‚Äù), the two humans working up quite the lather and harmonious vision to the sounds of ‚ÄúOh Happy Day‚Äù (When Jesus Washed).