Sport Is Cruel
“We all start life with a dream, don’t we?” muses Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) at the briefly seductive start of Wimbledon. After the opening titles cleverly cut to the beat of a tennis ball plunking back and forth, he introduces himself: longtime player on the international circuit, once ranked 11th, now 119th and resigned to his own “reality,” that is, he’s about to give up the tour for a more sedate life as a local club’s tennis pro. The camera offers up standard shots of fiercely competing young men smashing balls, then cuts back to Peter, wiping his brow as he observes, “Sport is cruel.”
Just so, on the eve of retirement, this “veteran journeyman” earns a wild card spot at Wimbledon, a last chance to achieve his own dream, to play in a Grand Slam finals round. Though Peter goes in assuming what the press and other players tell him, that he is too old and too soft, he discovers otherwise, as he’s inspired by the fiercely competitive American, Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst). While theirs is an altogether formulaic affair—complete with wishing on comets, lolling by fountains, running from paparazzi, and other contemporary romance movie conventions—Bettany’s singular charm eases the tedium, somewhat. Lanky, sweet-faced, and casually charming even when playing neurotic, he remains oddly convincing even when called on to dissolve at the very sight of lithe and lovely Lizzie.
Paul Bettany, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Neill, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jon Favreau, John McEnroe
US theatrical: 17 Sep 2004
Paul is apparently ripe for such dissolution. He first appears visiting the country club where he’ll be employed following Wimbledon, eyed by rich ladies like a piece of meat. Paul goes along, smiling and muttering to himself when someone misstates his one-time world ranking. His lack of celebrity, he realizes, leaves him open to interpretation; as he notes in his perpetually self-reflective voiceover, while great players are driven, “I’ve never been really hungry”—this as he drives a vintage Porsche convertible and lives in a fine, though unfinished, suburban manse.
He has, however, been regularly irritated and contradicted, as in his mother Augusta’s (Eleanor Bron) first on-screen observation, “You’re looking rather gaunt.” Ah yes. Paul has come up amid a quirky lot, which explains his laidback attitude, playing a sort of Marilyn amongst the Munsters. His father Edward (Bernard Hill), it seems, is moving into the treehouse, as he has just discovered his wife snogging a neighbor (which she admits she did, but only to get her husband’s attention), and brother Carl (James McAvoy) divides his time between cycling and sexing (and sometimes he manages both, riding his stationary bike while watching the director’s cut of Deep Throat: “It’s a classic,” he affirms, breathless).
Such background (his mother’s love expressed thus, “I know you to be a truly great tennis player”) explains Paul’s desire for a different sort of life, his willingness to give up the glamour of the road (another airport, another hotel) and give in to club ladies. But it doesn’t quite set up the insta-connect between Paul and Lizzie (helped along by his initial accidental glimpse of her in the shower: “Good-body,” he says, trying to make a graceful exit). The gimmick is tired: their trysts makes him a better player, more enthusiastic and determined, but distracts her so her game gets weaker. As a plot device, Lizzie’s stuck with a familiar plot line (even with Dunst’s part expanded, following director Richard Loncraine’s observation that “people wanted to know more about [Lizzie]” [New York Times 12 September 2004]). Accompanied on tour by her protective, ambitious father-trainer, Dennis (Sam Neill), she insists that they keep the romance secret, until, of course, the photographers catch them and then it becomes fun to upset her daddy.
Peter’s eventual coming to terms—with his girl, his game, and himself—makes Wimbledon a sort of Hugh Grant-ish romantic comedy, minus Grant’s stammering and snotty ‘tude. Paul’s such a nice and self-deprecating guy, it’s easy to see why everyone likes him (including the lesbian tennis player with whom he has a single conversation, apparently to show that lesbians exist on the tour and he’s fine with it). It’s less easy to see how Lizzie appeals to him, except in the abstract—she’s the hungry player he’s never been, and so it seems her energy flows to him each night. Indeed, he drives all over London and the English countryside to woo her, then plays each morning, exhausted but also keyed up enough to keep winning.
All of this leads to Peter’s becoming a “man,” in the most conventional terms. Not only does he win the pretty girl and beat the younger opponents, but he also punches out one especially obnoxious Yank, Jake (Austin Nichols), when he offends Lizzie’s honor in public. Gallant, determined, and increasingly self-assured, Peter withstands a series of generic conventions, including his pushy “comic relief” agent (Jon Favreau); stalking by unruly journalists; and “tv commentary” by John McEnroe and Chris Evert. The former is especially unnecessary, essentially narrating what you’re seeing on screen anyway: “Peter’s game this afternoon has been less than inspired,” etc.
In fact, Wimbledon‘s use of tennis as backdrop for the romance is also less than inspired. While some crowd and competition shots were picked up during a tournament last year, the main characters’ play also incorporates some digital touch-ups, mostly distracting and unconvincing. (The same might be said for the tennis-related dialogue, as when Lizzie tries to break up with Paul: “Love means nothing in tennis, zero.”)
This question of what’s real and what’s fakeable would seem relevant for a film seemingly interested in stardom as a structure. As Paul and Lizzie both seek but also resist their celebrity, Wimbledon opts for the most common, most Notting Hill-ish resolution. Love, everyone.