The English actor Paul Bettany is pale and freckled, with the sort of very light eyebrows that never do a screen star's handsomeness any favors. His face always seems to be on the verge of a scowl, and his teeth are just jagged enough to make it look like he's fantasizing about biting someone. Yet that elfin-psycho leer is part of his magnetism, and in movies like A Knight's Tale and Gangster No. 1 and A Beautiful Mind, Bettany has been extraordinary. Wimbledon, a tennis-world love story that pairs him with Kirsten Dunst, is nothing more than amiable fluff, yet Bettany infuses it with a brazen dash of reality. You believe in him, even when you don't quite believe in the movie.
He plays Peter Colt, a oncedecent but never great tennis player who knows that even his mild glory days are behind him. Peter, who is ranked 119th in the world, has drawn his umpteenth slot at Wimbledon, but he's well aware he's just going through the motions before he slips into a comfortable dull life as a tennis pro. When he meets Lizzie Bradbury, an American rising star played by Dunst as an affectionate brat, you may think that you've wandered into a groaner of a romance, the sort of movie that should have been called Love, Set, Match. Wimbledon is better than that, even if the courtship itself is strictly standard. These two fall in love at first serve, and the only mild obstruction to their fling is Lizzie's father (a glowering Sam Neill), who doesn't want anything to interfere with his daughter's championship hopes. Wimbledon, it turns out, is really Peter's story. Falling for Lizzie invigorates him; it gives him the confidence and verve to muster what he's been missing on the court -- the killer instinct. Despite his lowly ranking, he begins to win matches, one after another.
Wimbledon sounds like a fairy tale, and it is. Yet Bettany radiates such decency, hunger, and corkscrew charm that he makes Peter a genuine human being, a kind of forehand version of Hugh Grant in About a Boy. I only wish the script had been as witty and introspective as that film's. With the exception of Jon Favreau, who's hilarious as a benign huckster of an agent, Wimbledon is as quirk-free and uniform as a freshly groomed tennis lawn. The matches themselves are terrifically shot and edited, placing us right in the speed-heat of the action. One of the canniest moves made by the director, Richard Loncraine, wasn't just to teach his actors to play tennis but to keep that skill hidden for a while. When the camera finally draws back and reveals that, yep, it's Bettany who just made that shot, we're seduced into feeling that we're seeing a real match. Can Peter take the champion's cup? The small triumph of Wimbledon is that it makes you care about whether he does.