Wimbledon (United States/United Kingdom/France, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Love in tennis doesn't have to be bad, as Richard Loncraine's Wimbledon shows. A formulaic motion picture that delights in spite of (or perhaps because of?) its reliance upon conventions, Wimbledon is the kind of movie that allows the non-cynical movie-goer to sit back and relax in the presence of actors who work well with each other and a script whose familiarity is an asset. It's rare for any motion picture to successfully combine the clich├ęs of the sports and romance genres, while keeping a balance between them. In recent years, I can name only two: For Love of the Game and The Cutting Edge. To that select group, Wimbledon can be added.

The sports portion of the movie employs the usual underdog-makes-good scenario. Tennis is relatively new to this kind of treatment, but we have seen it tried with everything from baseball to basketball to boxing to golf, and there's not a lot of variation. The romance is more serious than comedic; Loncraine (whom art-house viewers may remember as the director of Ian McKellan's Richard III) has a greater interest in developing a real-world kind of relationship than punctuating the love affair with goof-ups and pratfalls. There are laughs to be had, but, if you want to call Wimbledon a "romantic comedy," be assured that the emphasis is on romantic.

Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) is a 31-year old tennis has-been. Actually, make that a never-was. His current world ranking of #119 is considerably below his position at #11 in 1996, but, even in his heyday, he was never a household name. Now, he has decided to announce his retirement after one more try at Wimbledon, where he has garnered a wild-card bid. He first encounters up-and-coming American star Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) when he accidentally enters her hotel room to find her in the shower. This mistake turns out to be the beginning of a whirlwind romance. For Peter, it's the best thing that could have happened to him - he's winning matches he was expected to lose and advancing further into the tournament than anyone believed he could. The opposite is true for Lizzie, who is favored to reach the finals. She's losing her focus and her play is becoming sloppy.

The film echoes some real-life tennis stories, such as the '70s storybook romance between Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert (it was short-lived, but made big headlines in the tennis world when it was hot), and the incredible ride to the U.S. Open semifinals for a 39-year old Connors in 1991 (before the tournament, he was ranked #174). Anyone wanting to call Wimbledon a fairy tale is within their rights (and it does have a fairy tale quality), but the storyline doesn't venture too far from reality.

As I have said dozens of times, romantic movies are made or broken by how well the leads interact with each other. If an audience believes they are in love and wants them to be together, it's irrelevant how plain or convoluted the plot is. And, in this case, there's plenty of chemistry between Bettany and Dunst. Also, while both are convincing when playing the romantic aspects of their roles, they look good on the court as well. Although it's possible that the editing has something to do with it, Bettany and Dunst look like they know what to do with a racket.

Bettany is a familiar face, having been seen in films like A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. His manner is a lot like that of Colin Firth: reserved and humble. It's part of his charm. Dunst, on the other hand, is known world-wide as Spider-Man's Mary Jane. It's to her credit that she sheds the superhero's girlfriend image immediately. She becomes Lizzie, and her natural high level of energy shines through. She's as bouncy and lively as anyone this side of Reese Witherspoon.

As much as Wimbledon gains from its two leads, the film also offers other small pleasures. The supporting cast is stacked with competent actors, including Sam Neill and Bernard Hill (best-known as King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings) as the fathers of Lizzie and Peter, respectively. The script is smart, and includes some incisive internal monologues by Peter. The handling of agents (one is played by Jon Favreau) is spot-on. And, at least to a casual fan of the sport, the script seems to have been penned by someone who knows what they're talking about. Die-hards may be able to find gaffes, but the screenplay stands up to a casual inspection.

I have never apologized for my taste in movies, and I'm not going to start now. Yes, Wimbledon is a crowd-pleaser, but it doesn't energize audiences by pandering to the least common denominator. The film has heart and spirit, and it does a lot of things well. There are plenty of other choices out there if you're looking for something surprising. Wimbledon has the feel of a comfortable bathrobe - you can sink into it and relax.

Wimbledon (United States/United Kingdom/France, 2004)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2004-09-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1