Daniel Kiniry joins the Peloton and says “chapeau” to The Racer from directeur sportif Kieron J. Walsh.
During the leg of the 1998 Tour de France which opened in Ireland, Dominique (Louis Talpe) arrives to serve as his team’s domestique. This means he looks after his younger, more abrasive teammates’ needs on the race but does not win himself. He’s hitting a wall in his career, nearing 40 and fearful of getting his contract renewed. This is especially made complicated by the team’s excessive doping regiment to compete professionally, which is having adverse effects on Dominique’s health.
The Racer, directed by Kieron J. Walsh, takes a look at a rather controversial time period of Tour de France, where there was an extremely high-profile doping scandal causing many competitors to leave. The use of doping in the sport is rather well known nowadays, but this takes a brutal and rather personal examination of it through a man who’s made his entire life about professional cycling and has no exit strategy now that his career has passed its peak. It’s impressive how far they go into showing the levels of doping on hand, especially with how the film cuts around showing his withdrawals. It’s heavy and effectively handled.
While the main story itself is rather heavy going, if not entirely dreary or weighty, it’s framed around the endearing image that is Ireland during the late ’90s. Coin-operated pay phones and Irish dancing galore! The period settings are cleverly handled and really funny, showing us an Ireland of old characterised by Boyzone -remember them?- and 4.3 telly broadcasts. They even have the old RTE News logo! It stops the story from entirely sinking into its darker themes and just takes you back to a more innocent and excitable era.
Louis Talpe has to take a lot of heavy lifting here; nearly every single scene centres around him. Thankfully he’s absolutely game here and he manages to get a gratifying amount of pathos and dilemma from the very stoic and no-nonsense Dominique. The rest of the cast are strong too, with team doctor and our protagonist’s love interest Lynn played by Tara Lee, and a stand out performance from the always awesome Iain Glen. If there’s one niggling qualm, I feel the rest of the cast could have been a bit better fleshed out. This is particularly the case for Matteo Simoni, who plays the team’s arrogant star player Lupo. While Simoni plays him appropriately determined and confrontational, I never felt engaged with his relationship with our lead to have moments near the end land for impact.
The production is stellar here. I feel the cinematography is a little too underlit for my taste, but it does capture the mood they’re going for and I particularly love the costume designs on the cyclist’s outfits. They really stand out and catch your eye. What really makes this movie flow is the cycling scenes. They’re intense and the use of extreme close-ups and the pacey way it simulated news coverage helps the races stand out and stay in your mind. I also love the very final shot.
The Racer is a very solid and commendable exploration of a fascinating period in Tour de France. While the story structure doesn’t try to break the wheel, it’s held up by a seminal lead performance and really carefully thought-out racing editing and period immersion. It immersed me -a man who will never have any interest in cycling- and manages to look at dark subject matter with a degree of weight by contrasting that with light humour and a decent selection of ’90s choons. A treat for cycling and Boyzone fans everywhere.
The Racer screened as part of the 65th Cork International Film Festival (8 – 15 November 2020)