Two of the most beloved genres in Hollywood are the Romantic Comedy and the Sports Fantasy. Not surprisingly, both of these are also the ones where you always know what you are getting into in the first place. To make a weird comparison, I would say they are kind of like porn in a sense – where each film will have different actors headlining the screen, different locations, different compositions of the same underlying theme and so on. However, the more things change, the more they remain the same. You always know the sweet couple is going to end up together after numerous diversions in a rom-com; just like you always know the underdog is going to end up winning after overcoming numerous roadblocks. Yet, we fall in love with these films time and again; perhaps because that warm feeling we get at the end – though oddly familiar – is so good to have and therein lies their greatest strength.
Wimbledon combines these genres and remains true in heart and spirit to both of them. It tells the story of 31-year old British tennis player Peter Colt (Paul Bettany). After years of wear and tear where the closest he came to winning a grand slam was in 1997, he has finally decided to call it quits. But he still fancies one final huzzah; one final shot at glory before fading from the limelight as a has-been. Where else to do it other than on the fabled grass courts of Wimbledon? In contrast, Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) is the new kid on the block. Known for her fiery temper on the court, she is coming in with a strong reputation and is expected to go all the way.
As fate would have it, they are handed keys to the same room in the Dorchester hotel, and Peter walks in on Lizzie taking a bath. They strike it off from there and become more intimate as the tournament progresses. However, their relationship is helping only one of them; Peter seems to have the British hopes flying high as he breezes through the early rounds whereas Lizzie is faltering and her game is taking a hit. The rest of the story follows a pretty predictable arc in both cases, and ends as we would expect it to.
I will say this right up front though – if you are not a fan of Tennis, there is no point in watching this film. Right from the film’s name to the location where it chooses to stage Peter’s fight, you have to simply understand why Wimbledon is so adored to really enjoy this film. There are numerous references to the technicalities of the game that will be lost on non-fans. Plus, this film is a fantasy in more ways than one – it is a well-known fact that no Brit has won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936. This film gives them something to cheer about; well, at least till Andy Murray fulfills his potential.
Right from their first meeting, it is pretty apparent that there is real chemistry between Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst; the lack of which is the downfall of many a romance. And it only becomes more palpable as the film progresses, which is one of its greatest strengths. The other is the visualization of the matches. Sports films thrive on this and, if it is not at least a little bit authentic, fans especially are going to be disappointed. Thankfully, Wimbledon doesn’t falter on this count. The best thing it does is not trying to have matches with any of the real players. In fact, the only brush with Tennis royalty comes from John McEnroe’s delightful match commentary. Apart from that, you hear Federer, Roddick, Hewitt and others being mentioned in passing, but they never appear on-screen; and the director couldn’t have made a better choice. Although you know these are not pro-tennis players, the actors sell that illusion very well, and the film doesn’t insult the intelligence of fans of the sport which is all you could ask for really.
Paul Bettany is definitely a British actor all right. From the moment he starts performing, you have no choice but to like him and root for him. He is very similar to two of my other favorite Brits – Hugh Grant and Colin Firth – in that regard. Not to mention, he is able to completely hold his own in the heavier sequences as well. Kirsten Dunst is someone who I’ve always liked as an actress. Although her on-court performance is not up to par (thankfully the film focuses on Peter’s matches more), she more than makes amends off it with her pretty and expressive face. Bernard Hill and Sam Neill as the respective fathers are their veteran selves. James McAvoy as Peter’s younger brother is naughty, while Jon Favreau is simply splendid as both the players’ charismatic agent; it really is amazing how slimy he is able to make the character despite only having a few moments on-screen.
It wouldn’t be far off to rank Wimbledon as one of the best guilty pleasures I’ve had in recent times. The film has a completely predictable plot and the screenplay follows the guidelines for both a rom-com and a sports fantasy to a T. However, by the end, I found myself cheering for Peter’s victory as if he had actually achieved Wimbledon glory. And I wanted the couple to join together as badly as I’ve wanted to in any recent romance (and I’ve been watching a fair bit of those in the past couple of weeks). For me, whenever a film gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling and has me rooting for the characters, I would definitely put it in the great category, and Wimbledon most certainly is one.