DIR: Janus Metz • WRI: Ronnie Sandahl • PRO: Jon Nohrstedt, Fredrik Wikström • DOP: Niels Thastum • ED: Per K. Kirkegaard, Per Sandholt • DES: Lina Nordqvist • MUS: Vladislav Delay, Jon Ekstrand, Carl-Johan Sevedag, Jonas Struck • CAST: Stellan Skarsgard, Shia LaBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason
Tennis is hardly an interesting sport at the best of times. To the uninitiated it begs the question: “Why watch two people hit a green ball and grunt for three hours?” To the initiated, however, it is a game of speed, skill, and endurance. Borg vs McEnroe does the impossible and makes tennis look, sound, and feel interesting. Despite an overload of onscreen text, the film wrests both gripping tension and riveting drama from the jaws of overwhelming boredom.
It’s 1980 and Björn Borg (Sverrir Gunadson) is chasing his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title. The supposedly emotionless Swede’s only challenger is the fiery young American John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). Both men demand total control on and off the court with McEnroe’s emotional volcano concealing an icy professionalism and Borg’s own temperament closer to a pressure cooker than the well-oiled machine he puts across. Past and present pressures come to the fore as the championship approaches.
This being a Swedish production, its focus is obviously very Borg-centric. Understandably so as McEnroe’s notoriously explosive temper works only in small bursts. Gunadson’s performance as Borg is like watching an iceberg melt. Professionalism drips away over the course of the film revealing a passionate core that still beats within. His desire to be the best drives many people away. including his fiancé Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny) and coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård). LaBeouf as the complex McEnroe is some of the best casting this year giving the equally hot-headed actor a great deal to play with. It never comes close to scenery-chewing however, as director Janus Metz knows how much is just enough.
The only problems Borg vs McEnroe truly suffers from are pacing and an overload of on-screen information. Certain scenes of childhood flashbacks could have been left out in Borg’s case whereas the younger McEnroe’s story is only hinted at through parental pressure from his formative years all the way to the championship. Even so Niels Thastum’s camerawork ensures that no matter how slow the film moves at times it is always a joy to watch. Soft orange lighting occupies most of the film and the tennis matches have a sunburnt, over-lit feel to them making the film’s best sequences even more authentic.
The story of Borg versus McEnroe at the time was a tale of “Gentleman versus Superbrat” as the tabloids so eloquently put it in 1980. Borg was depicted as a Messianic figure of all that was good about tennis. McEnroe was depicted as a villain both on and off the court. In reality, both men were flawed people capable of great passion and even greater fury. In one scene, the two players sit beneath a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s timeless poem If… It reads: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same.” Winning and losing in Borg vs McEnroe is ephemeral. Victory is fleeting,as is defeat, and both mean nothing if you cannot step off the court and share the feelings both bring. Borg vs McEnroe succeeds in immortalising two titans of the game of tennis all the while capturing exactly what makes the game so interesting.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Borg vs McEnroe is released 22nd September 2017