out of Five
Running time: 89
Personal Best is impressively shot and has a couple of good moments but it's very much a case of style over substance and the frustrating lack of focus means you come away from the film knowing very little about its subjects.
What's it all about?
Directed by Sam Blair, Personal Best (not to be confused with Robert Towne's 1982 film about sprinting lesbians) is a documentary portrait of four British athletes in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. They include: 29 year old Jeanette Kwakye, who broke records by reaching the 100m final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but has had to struggle to regain her form after a training injury; sprinter James Ellington, whose mother confesses she wishes he wasn't quite as good, because there's so much to lose; sprint hurdler Richard Alleyne, who faces post-injury comeback problems of his own; and 17 year old 100m runner Omardo Anson, whose excitement at his own constant improvement is extremely charming.
Blair structures the film using timelines that allow the film to look back over previous events before the 2012 Olympics, so we get some idea of the athletes' progress up to this point. These are interspersed with both official (televised) and amateur clips from their actual races, as well as interviews with all four athletes and the occasional relative, such as Ellington's mother. Oddly, Blair doesn't seem to spend a lot of time filming their trainers, although they are often heard in voiceover.
Of the four, it's Kwakye who emerges as the most engaging character, with her extraordinarily positive attitude and a nice-line in self-deprecating humour, such as when she describes her initial forays into the sport: “[I was the] typical little Afro-Caribbean girl: big arse; bad technique. But I was quick.” The film is also impressively shot, courtesy of cinematographer Jean-Louis Schuller, though he's rather too reliant on slow-motion shots, to the point where if the film was played at normal speed it would finish in half the time.
The main problem with the film is that it's very much a case of style over substance, since Blair is more concerned with making the film aesthetically pleasing (as well as the stylish cinematography, there's a vaguely trance-like soundtrack that seems out of place with the subject matter) than he is with getting to know his subjects. As a result, the lack of information becomes increasingly frustrating – we learn next to nothing about their training regimes or how their chosen profession impacts on their family, friends and social lives, for example.
Personal Best is stylishly shot and occasionally moving but it ultimately lacks substance and the film might have been better served by restricting its focus to just the main two subjects and exploring them in greater detail.