HomeTennisChallengers review: Zendaya aces her performance in this steamy tennis drama

Challengers review: Zendaya aces her performance in this steamy tennis drama


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Also reviewed this week: ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’ and ‘In the Land of Saints and Sinners’

No such problems in Challengers, where Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist thwock and smash with such conviction that you feel they must have taken lessons. They did — Zendaya spent three months training with top coach Brad Gilbert, and bops around the sun-kissed courts like Iga Świątek .

Which is fitting, because tennis is the overriding passion that unites the three very different characters in the film. And while tennis may be a metaphor for sex or success in Luca Guadagnino’s irresistibly steamy drama, it might just be a metaphor for tennis.

Zendaya says she plays her most ‘cruel’ character yet in Challengers

As the film opens, two men are battling it out in the final of the La Rochelle hard court tournament, a second-tier event both players are using as a warm-up for the US Open. Art Donaldson (Faist), a multiple major winner trying to right a career slump, and TPA circuit hack Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) exchange dirty looks during game breaks, but never utter a word to each other. They have history, as we’re about to discover.

We then drift back a decade or so to the Junior US Open, at which both Zweig and Donaldson are competing. They play doubles together, and are inseparable friends, but one fateful afternoon go to watch rising star Tashi Duncan (you know who) compete in the women’s singles. She’s awesome, they agree, and so hot! At a party that night, they vie for her attention.

Mike Faist and Zendaya in a scene from the movie. Photo: Niko Tavernise© 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc

At one point, a ménage à trois seems possible — a New Yorker critic has wittily called the film an “Adidas-sponsored Jules et Jim”. But Tashi, the brightest of the trio by some distance, notices that Art and Patrick seem almost as keen on each other as her, and leaves their hotel room declaring “I’m not a home wrecker”.

Eventually, though, she chooses Patrick, and they begin going out while she completes her education at Stanford. Everyone has tipped Tashi as a future major-winner, and world number one, but all those hopes are derailed when she suffers a horrific, career-ending knee injury. Finished before she ever started, Tashi retreats into herself, breaks up with Patrick, and eventually turns to coaching.

Patrick, a talented but temperamental flake, soon crashes and burns on the pro circuit, while Art, a grafter, makes steady progress. When he runs into Tashi at a tournament, they hit it off, and she decides to become his trainer. They marry, and have a child, but their relationship is all about the tennis.

That tournament at La Rochelle has been arranged by Tashi to end Art’s terrible run of form, but Patrick’s appearance changes everything, and raises old wounds.

Beautifully constructed by Guadagnino and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Challengers is written like one of those hard-boiled 1930s screwball comedies. Tashi and her boys say really nasty things to each other, and sound like they’re telling it like it is. But all have reasons for avoiding painful truths.

Patrick knows he’s squandered his God-given talent for “hitting a ball”, and Art deep down never wanted to be a tennis star at all. He wants to stop, and the only thing keeping him going is Tashi, who bullied him towards success.

After her injury, Tashi needed a proxy, and wisely chose the more biddable and hard-working Art. The only problem is she loved Patrick, not him, and that is her cross to bear.

All of this simmering tension is skilfully woven into the sporting narrative, and as we mentioned, the tennis is not some throwaway backdrop — it’s a means of self-expression, almost an art form for these three, a conduit to perfection. Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist are very good as the friends turned enemies, but this is Zendaya’s film, and she strides through it like a fury, the fuming, domineering protagonist.

In cinemas from Friday, April 26

Rating: Five stars

Barry Ward in ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’. Photo: Conic Film

​That They May Face the Rising Sun (12A, 111mins)

Pat Collins has made many fine films down the years, and surpasses himself with this elegiac adaptation of John McGahern’s final novel. Young couple Joe and Kate Ruttledge (Barry Ward, Anna Bederke) have left London to live in Joe’s native Leitrim townland. It’s the 1980s, times are tough, and the locals wonder if Joe had a screw loose returning to this economically stagnant backwater. Joe’s a writer, Anna’s an artist, and over time they earn the affection and trust of their neighbours.

Some nuts, however, are tougher to crack, and they must work hard to win the trust of Patrick Ryan (Lalor Roddy), a sharp-witted, mercurial handyman. A fine cast includes Ruth McCabe, Phillip Nolan and Sean McGinley, who delivers a heart-rending portrayal of lonely bachelor Johnny, but Lalor Roddy is mesmerising as Pat, a stubbornly single-minded man who knows his time is passing. When death comes, the community draws together to absorb the loss, summoning old songs and customs to ease the pain. That wake forms the climax of this quiet, thoughtful, mesmerising film.

In cinemas from Friday, April 26​

Rating: Five stars

Ciarán Hinds and Liam Neeson in ‘In the Land of Saints and Sinners’. Photo: Netflix

In the Land of Saints and Sinners (Netflix, 106mins)

Liam Neeson would surely have thrived in the great era of the westerns, and Land of Saints and Sinners basically is one. For the Rio Grande insert Glencolmcille in 1974, and we are in comparable bandit country. Affable bachelor Finbar Murphy (Neeson) is well liked but has a little secret: he works as a hitman for a laconic local criminal (Colm Meaney), whose enemies he dispatches with a reluctant shrug in lonely forests. He has the good manners to feel bad about this, and has just retired when trouble comes to town in the shape of a rogue IRA outfit.

​Led by firebrand harpy Doireann McCann (Kerry Condon), the gang are on the run after killing two children in a botched bomb attack. When Finbar takes exception to one of them, a war erupts that seems bound to end in a murky saloon. In his own minimalist way, Neeson brings soul to a problematic character, Ciarán Hinds is very good as the local guard/honest sheriff, Niamh Cusack plays a benign neighbour, and Kerry Condon swears up a storm as the frankly terrifying Doireann. It’s a good laugh overall, and one of big Liam’s better action vehicles.

On Netflix from Friday, April 26

Rating: Three stars

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