Wimbledon, 2004, 1 ¾ stars

Wimbledon loses at love

From OrlandoCityBeat.com, September 17, 2004

Much like a spirited tennis match, Wimbledon keeps your attention and sets a lively pace. But despite being one of the best movies ever about tennis’s high society and life behind the scenes of the sport’s top tournament, it never quite makes it over the net thanks to a contrived love story, a weak Kirsten Dunst and a hopeless predictability.

Playing aging British tennis star Peter Colt is Paul Bettany, fresh off his brilliant performance in Master and Commander  and an almost equally memorable turn as the imaginary friend in A Beautiful Mind.  Colt, as he is fond of pointing out, was once ranked as highly as 11 in the world but has now fallen to 119 and, at almost 32 years of age, is nearing retirement.

Playing his last Wimbledon and in desperate need of inspiration, he finds it by falling unexpectedly in love with young American tennis sensation Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst). After the two spend several awkward and not quite believable scenes together, Peter can do no wrong on the court, while Lizzie, who does not share the same passionate feelings, views the romance as a distraction to her game. The other details of the tryst and even the outcome of the tournament matter little as the whole uninspired mess bounces slowly along to a predictably happy, corn-filled ending.

Director Richard Lancraine (TV’s Band of Brothers and My House in Umbria) serves up a few aces, especially in the subtle performances of Bettany and veteran British actor Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings, Titanic) as Colt’s father. But Lancraine also makes a big double fault – using Dunst, who appears out of her depth and empty-eyed, and turning what should be a touching romance by the writer of French Kiss into a commonplace comedy/drama about a British man finally winning Wimbledon.

Lizzie tells Peter, “Love means nothing in tennis.” Apparently for Lancraine, getting the details of the tournament right means nothing too. Sure, he loads the film up with cameos by John McEnroe and Chris Evert. And when he takes a break from the gimmicky fast-action shots and the moments where we overhear Peter’s thoughts during the match, the quiet grace of the game comes through in some decent cinematography. But those moments are too few, and small mistakes such as leaving out the entire fourth round of the tournament are too glaring for tennis fans not to notice.

Despite the director’s unforced errors, lovers of the game will enjoy the cameos, the detailed glimpse of this strawberries-and-cream world and the time spent showing the details of each of Peter’s matches. But the comic relief is mediocre at best, and the subplot of Lizzie’s disapproving father, played by a strangely ineffective Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), stealing her away from Peter is too cliché and draws attention away from the only item of real interest – whether Peter will be victorious.

Just as England constantly roots for a Brit to win the tournament, we long for both Peter and this movie to succeed. Sadly, we may see neither, because while Wimbledon makes some winning shots, it can never quite finish off the match.