Fri, Dec 24, 2004 - Page 16 News List

A match made in heaven

A movie about tennis has more to engage the viewer than might initially be thought

By Stephen Holden  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE


Will pre-match sexual hijinks give you the edge you need to win at tennis? Or will they distract you from mobilizing the killer instinct essential to victory? That's the earth-shattering question at the heart of Wimbledon, a likable, formulaic sports movie that follows the miraculous comeback of an insecure 31-year-old British tennis pro, Peter Colt (Paul Bettany), whose career resurrects on the wings of love.

In the eight years since Peter placed 11th in the international tennis rankings, he has sunk to 119th. At Wimbledon, where he's playing his last professional matches before taking a job as a tennis instructor at a fancy club, he meets and falls in love with an American tennis pro, Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst). A super-competitive athlete, on the fast track to the women's championship, Lizzie appears unstoppable until Paul enters her life. As her defenses start to crumble, her concentration falters and the trajectories of their careers unexpectedly reverse. Paul credits Lizzie with spurring his triumphs, while she bitterly blames him for her fall from grace.

Wimbledon's most refreshing idea is to present a sports hero who doesn't see himself primarily as an invincible fighting machine. Peter, who narrates the movie and whose jumbled interior thoughts are heard at tense moments, has a mind and a soul as well as a body. He is courtly, witty, sensitive and apologetic to a fault, but he is no smoothie.

Until she meets him, Lizzie is a snippy, wisecracking know-it-all pursuing the win-at-all-costs agenda of her pushy father, Dennis (Sam Neill). Dennis immediately perceives Peter as a threat and tries to keep him away from his daughter, but he won't be stopped. Lizzie is adept enough at compartmentalizing her life to have enjoyed a number of meaningless flings on the road without becoming distracted. She is all business when she first sleeps with Paul. When she loses control, she loses her temper.

Film Notes: Wimbledon

Directed by: Richard Loncraine

Starring: Kirsten Dunst (Lizzie Bradbury), Paul Bettany (Peter Colt), Sam Neill (Dennis Bradbury), James McAvoy (Carl Colt), John Favreau (Ron Roth), Bernard Hill (Edward Colt), Eleanor Bron (Augusta Colt), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Dieter Prohl)

Running time: 100 minutes

Taiwan Release: today

Dunst projects the lithe physical grace of a born athlete, but she has a delicate line to tread to keep Lizzie sympathetic. Her skill at balancing Lizzie's smugness and vulnerability is a tricky feat she carries off by portraying her conflicting urges as the suppressed inner tug of war by someone too self-disciplined for melodrama. Until she cracks, the conflict registers mostly as subtle, telling changes in expression and body language.

Although the movie shows only fleeting glimpses of Lizzie in action, a good portion of Peter's screen time is spent sweating on the court. The tennis scenes, though credible, are pumped up and stretched out for suspense and embellished with dramatic glitches: an official's wrong call, a sudden downpour and several falls.

Wimbledon, which opens nationally today, was directed by Richard Loncraine, the guiding hand behind Ian McKellan's streamlined, Fascist-era Richard III and the cult comedy Brimstone and Treacle. Although Wimbledon is a much more conventional film, it still has cleverer-than-average dialogue and sharply drawn subsidiary characters.

Among them are Peter's bratty younger brother, Carl (James McAvoy), who bets on Peter to lose; the brothers' eccentric, unhappily married parents, Edward (Bernard Hill) and Augusta (Eleanor Bron); and Peter's ultimate opponent, Jake Hammond (Austin Nichols), a spoiled, sour American pretty boy who comes over as instantly loathsome.

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