What To Watch This Weekend: Challengers
What To Watch This Weekend: Challengers

What To Watch This Weekend: Challengers

By now, you’ve probably seen Zendaya hitting red carpets around the world in high-end interpretations of tennis gear. From Loewe tennis-ball heels to all-white Vivienne Westwood and Ralph Lauren looks, her press tour outfits have set the scene for ‘Challengers’ – Luca Guadagnino’s new film that follows a love triangle as it plays out on court. Sexy, unexpected and bursting with tension, here’s why it’s worth a watch…
By Heather Steele

If you thought Emerald Fennell’s upper-class satire Saltburn was a cultural moment at the end of 2023, get ready for Challengers. The tennis season is already in full swing, but it’s Zendaya’s recent red-carpet wardrobe that has spurned the ‘tennis core’ trend. And that was even before we got a glimpse of Loewe creative director/Challengers costume designer Jonathan Anderson’s looks for the film. Trust us, you’ll be seeing his ‘I Told Ya’ logo t-shirt – worn a few times in the film – plenty over the coming weeks.

From Luca Guadagnino – the Italian director behind ultimate coming-of-age film Call Me By Your Name and the sun-soaked 2015 remake of A Bigger Splash – Challengers sees Zendaya play Tashi Duncan, a former tennis prodigy turned coach who makes no apologies for her game on or off the court. At the start of the film, she’s introduced as the coach – and wife – of a tennis champ on a losing streak. Played by Mike Faist, Art Donaldson has everything – a loving family, lucrative watch adverts plastered across billboards and multiple grand slam titles to his name. But he’s lost a couple of key games, and his enthusiasm for his gruelling schedule is starting to wane.

But Tashi is a fighter and knows a couple of easy wins will have Art back in the right mindset – and their marriage back on track. So, she arranges for Art to compete in a low-stakes ‘challenger’ tournament, where some inevitable wins are sure to fire him up. However, Tashi’s strategy for her husband’s career redemption takes a surprising turn when Art is drawn against washed-up Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) – his former best friend and Tashi’s old boyfriend. As their pasts and presents collide, tensions run high, and Tashi is forced to ask herself what it costs to win.

Stretching over 13 years, Challengers tracks the intertwined relationships of all three characters. Although we first witness Tashi in Chanel pumps and oversized sunnies, in the earlier scenes we see Tashi’s strength – both on court and as a physical tour de force – through the eyes of Art and Patrick, then junior men’s doubles champs. Long-limbed and clad in a short adidas tennis dress, you can appreciate why teenaged Patrick laughs as he tells Art he’d willingly let her “f**k me with her racquet.” From the off, the two are smitten with next-big-thing Tashi. And – fresh from a final win of their own – the pair hatch a plan to get to know her. No one is more surprised than them when their plan to entice her back to their burger wrapper-strewn hotel room to share a couple of warm beers works. What happens next is even more surprising – and sends ripples through all of their future interactions.

Like a final at Wimbledon, the tension rises as the film counts down the minutes. This is, of course, is down to the acting – the chemistry between the three of them is off the charts – but also thanks to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s thumping soundtrack. The Nine Inch Nails musicians won an Oscar for their work in The Social Network, and like Saltburn, the earlier scenes in Challengers are filled with throwback tunes – hello, Nelly Furtado – but it’s the recurring electronic thump when either Art or Patrick pick up a racquet that is most effective… right down to the final shot.

We’ve always liked Josh O’Connor. He managed to imbue humanity into a young Prince Charles in earlier series of The Crown. And if you haven’t seen God’s Own Country, where he plays a farmhand who falls in love with a migrant worker, you must. Zendaya needs no introduction – as a leggy yet complex woman with everyday demons to battle, we can’t imagine anyone else in the role. But we feel this is Mike Faist’s film. With an impressive Broadway CV, he’s a relative unknown on screen despite his scene-stealing turn as Riff in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. In Challengers, he plays both browbeaten husband and plucky young hopeful very well. He’s also the most convincing of the three when it comes to switching between adolescence and adulthood. 

Come for the outfits but stay for the twists and turns. Wimbledon and the Paris Olympics aren’t far off but we can’t imagine a games as tense – and laden with threat – as the final showdown between Art and Patrick. The audience we watched it with collectively gasped.

Challengers lands in UK cinemas on 26th April.

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