The tennis is good, the filming and editing of the tennis even better in the French sports melodrama “Final Set.”
It’s a “Big Game/Big Match” movie with all the trappings of the genre — lots of foreshadowing, an aged veteran hoping for one last glimpse of glory, a cocky youngster, a still-demanding tennis mother, a spouse who realized it was time for her to move on and can’t make her husband see the same.
And it works. Quentin Reynard’s French Open tale has drama and splendidly compact performances that make its predictable journey a perfectly pleasant way to experience the clay of Paris’s Stade Roland Garros.
As a player, the oddly-named Thomas Edison (Alex Lutz of “The Visitors: Bastille Day” and “Paris-Willouby”) peaked about twenty years earlier. He had his shot at the big brass ring, only to see it slip through his fingers.
Twenty years and three knee surgeries later, he’s facing the twilight of his career, facing a slow recovery from the last surgery and a lot of canceled offers for seeding in tournaments.
He’s got a wife, a former player herself (Ana Girandot). They have a little boy who is just showing interest in playing games with balls, but mother Eve coos to him (in French with English subtitles) “Oh, Gaspard won’t be a tennis player. He’ll be a doctor!”
And Thomas, at 37, still has his tennis mother. Kristin Scott Thomas brings a lifetime of formidable women to Judith, still “correcting,” still “coaching,” still his sternest critic, the one who hasn’t seen him play live in years.
Writer-director Quentin Reynaud, who plays Thomas’s playing partner and coach, shows us the indignities of a career on the wane. Eve fields the calls with canceled offers, debates her husband’s deep slide in the rankings, and plans to start a course in sports management.
But if she’s done, she’s pretty damned sure he is, too. He’s just not seeing it. He’ll try for the French Open, joining 127 other “qualifiers” competing in a grueling pre-tourney round of matches just to win the privilege of being crushed by one of the top seeds in the early rounds.
Another indignity? The town cars that take players to and from the tourney are for the seeds, not you, old sport.
Thomas might use this as motivation, the fact that nobody believes in him.
But to meet his goal, Thomas focuses on the cocky younger version of him, a 17 year old played by French tennis star Jurgen Briand. The onetime “future hope of French tennis” only hopes to get the chance to play the current version.
What can I say about this pre-ordained plot and film of archetypes, aside from “It works?”
The Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas is just as intimidating in French as she is her native English. “We all get old, Thomas” could have been vamped up. But KST keeps the “disappointed in you” hidden, unspoken. “Try the over-35 championship.” Nobody does “brittle” better.
Lutz makes a believable athlete and Thomas an intriguing character, a man whose recovery included memorizing all the pushing-40 tennis stars who got one last hurrah just before they bowed out.
The supernaturally beautiful Girandot manages to be both sympathetic and cruelly, perhaps selfishly pragmatic, pointing out Thomas’s delusion, even as he’s punching through qualifying, picking up a tiny product endorsement and wondering just how far he can go, this time and “next year.”
“Final Set” isn’t leaps and bounds better than Paul Bettany’s Brit-tennis has-been tale, “Wimbledon,” or any of the other tennis dramas. But in keeping it simple and personal, Reynaud finds the sweet-spot in a movie whose ebb and flow we know by heart, whose finale is the one we’re almost sure to expect.
Rating: unrated, some profanity
Cast: Alex Lutz, Ana Girandot, Jurgen Briand, Quentin Reynaud and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Quentin Reynaud. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:52