Weekend of a Champion: London Review

Festival de Cannes/PA
"Rush" - the documentary.

Roman Polanski dusts off his long-lost screen portrait of motor racing champion Jackie Stewart, newly restored and expanded with contemporary footage.

LONDON - The gladiatorial golden age of Formula 1 motor racing is currently enjoying high cinematic interest thanks to Ron Howard’s rubber-burning bio-drama Rush and Asif Kapadia’s heartbreaking 2010 documentary Senna. A fly-on-the-steering-wheel profile of Scottish three-time F1 champ Jackie Stewart at the peak of his career, Weekend of a Champion is a vintage documentary produced and presented by Roman Polanski. Shot at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1971, it offers an insider’s view of this high-risk, high-octane sport during its most lethally dangerous period.

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Screening at the London Film Festival this week, Weekend of a Champion was a minor project that Polanski made between his breakthrough American movies, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. It never received a full U.S. release, and was largely forgotten until the negative came to light recently. Now this restored and expanded version, which features new contemporary footage, has been bought by the documentary arm of Rush Hour director Brett Ratner’s production company Rat, which plan to release it through Netflix.

Granted special access as a personal friend, Polanski shadows Stewart and his wife Helen across four days of tense training runs, glitzy social functions, cheerful meetings with competition winners and autograph hunters. The pair also blast around the compact Monte Carlo circuit together, as the affable Scot explains the precision technique involved in every curve and gear-shift. Despite heavy rainclouds and the ever-present threat of fatal accident, the race itself ultimately passes without serious incident.

Weekend of a Champion clearly will clearly have most appeal to hardcore motor racing fans, who will appreciate the forensic precision that Stewart puts into every decision, a Jedi-like level of expertise that later served him well in his post-championship careers as a commentator for ABC and safety campaigner. Casual F1 fans may also enjoy the cameos by legendary drivers including Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Stewart’s former team-mate, Graham Hill. Other celebrities of the period also make fleeting appearance, including Princess Grace, Ringo Starr and Joan Collins. As a flashy tax haven for the super-rich, Monaco has long been the most glamorous race of the season.

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Rakishly dressed and shaggy haired in the dandyish Austin Powers style of the period, Polanski appears sporadically on screen throughout. He also co-stars in a new 20-minute coda, reuniting with Stewart 40 years later in the same hotel suite to reminisce on old times. This is the least dramatic or dynamic part of the documentary, but in some ways the most revealing. Stewart reflects ruefully on all the fallen comrades he lost during an era when racing drivers had a one-in-three chance of survival. One of them was his handsome French team-mate François Cevert, a fleeting presence in the film, who died in a crash in 1973.

Thanks partly to Stewart’s dogged campaigns to make the sport safer, the number of fatal crashes has declined dramatically in recent years. “In the 1970s, motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe,” he quips, a line that surely carries an extra sting for Polanski. Weekend of a Champion begins as a motorsports movie but ends up a portrait of two wily elder statesmen who have survived into their seventies by skill, stealth and sheer luck.

Production company: RP productions

Producer: Roman Polanski

Starring: Jackie Stewart, Roman Polanski, Helen Stewart

Director: Frank Simon

Cinematographers: Bill Brayne, Pawel Edelman

Editors: Hervé de Luze, Shawn Tracey, Derek York

Sales company: Pathé International

Unrated, 93 minutes