We may be rubbish now, but there was a time when the British were good at sport. You know - 1966 and all that. Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. Virginia Wade and Sue Barker. Ian Botham and Mike Gatting. Any of this ringing bells?
Thing is, though, we've never been any good at making sports movies. The Americans churn them out, but in more than a century of cinema the best the Brits have managed are Chariots Of Fire and Escape To Victory. It's hardly a gold-medal roll call. But now we can add Wimbledon to that list. Though it fails to smash a powerful first serve in other departments, there's no doubting Richard Loncraine's flick aces it as a sports movie.
As Paul Bettany's over-the-hill pro grunts and strains, a genuine excitement builds. Thwacking that computer-generated ball back and forth with huge physical commitment, he really does look like a tennis player. Throw in his humorous, self-deprecating mental match commentary ("Christ! I'm too old for this...") and you genuinely find yourself rooting for the guy.
The games convince, too. You suspect it's all going to be horribly predictable, but there's a gripping sense of uncertainty as the tournament progresses. Don't believe us? Try watching Bettany's final game. At the press showing, a dodgy line-call had hardened hacks scrabbling on the floor for the notebooks they'd just dropped in gasping shock. It's grand stuff.
But while the sport part of the equation is well inside the court and the comedy part clips the line (there are a dozen hearty chuckles salted among the obscene product placement), the romance element is match-losingly wide. Sadly, Bettany's pairing with Kirsten Dunst just doesn't work. It'd be easy to put it down to a lack of chemistry (though that does play a part), but the fault really lies in the balance of characters. Bettany's got a fully-fledged persona to play with, but Dunst is merely a plot-serving cipher, her character altering from scene to scene (doe-eyed vixen, on-court screamer, misunderstood daddy's girl) as the needs of the narrative demand.
So, for all their individual skills, you never really buy them as a mixed-singles pairing. The film double-faults every time it tries to focus on their relationship - which, unfortunately, is about 70 percent of the time, including a huge snooze-worthy chunk at the end of the second act.
The result? Well, another plucky British hope underperforms on the courts of southwest London. It wins a few early games and dodges a straight-sets defeat but loses far too much momentum in the middle. By the final set, even an exhilarating finish isn't enough to salvage the match.