Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Janus Metz
Stars: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard, Tuva Novotny.
The 1980 Wimbledon Men’s Final is widely regarded as one of the great tennis matches in sporting history. It was an epic five match encounter between world number one, the ice-cold Swedish champion Bjorn Borg, who was attempting to win his record breaking fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, and brash American upstart John McEnroe, the “super brat” who was better known for his on-court tantrums and volatile nature. This is the second movie in a couple of months recreating a tennis rivalry – the first being Battle Of The Sexes, which looked at the historical match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. That movie may have been more entertaining, due largely to Steve Carell’s wonderful performance as the chauvinistic Riggs, but Borg McEnroe is more exciting due to the carefully choreographed and shot climactic tennis match.
The film gives us a look at the differing personalities of the two players, and their intense rivalry – Borg was the ice cold and clinical Swede while McEnroe was the brash and temperamental but talented underdog from New York. It also shows us their vulnerabilities and doubts, but also ultimately shows how alike they really were beneath the surface. The fierce rivalry between the pair was explored in the superb 2011 HBO documentary McEnroe/Borg: Fire And Ice, which gave us more insight into their contrasting personalities.
This film however also looks at the pressures of competing at such a high level and the toll it takes on the athletes. Indeed, here Borg is starting to grow tired of the spotlight and the trappings of fame, and these feelings start to add to the psychological pressures he experiences in the lead up to the match. It highlights some of Borg’s eccentricities and pre-game routines. But the match also rehabilitated McEnroe’s image in the hearts and minds of the conservative tennis going public who had roundly booed him at the start of the match.
Borg McEnroe is a Scandinavian co-production, and scriptwriter Ronnie Sandahl (a director in his own right with films like Underdog, etc to his credit) has obviously researched the characters. However, he spends a lot of time with Borg and his personal demons. Consequently, we don’t get enough of McEnroe’s own backstory, which would also be interesting. A series of brief flashback sequences look at their childhood and their approach to the sport. (The younger Borg was a lot like McEnroe in his early years and his combustible attitude towards the game was much the same – he was a volatile youngster who hated to lose – until he was taken under the wing of his coach and mentor Lennart Bergelin (played here by prolific Swedish veteran Stellan Skarsgard), who smoothed out his rough edges and transformed him into the professional player he became.
The film has been deftly directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz (the terrific Afghanistan war documentary Armadillo, etc), who gives the material an almost documentary-like feel. His staging of the climactic tennis match is gripping stuff. It has been nicely shot by cinematographer Niels Thastum, who uses creative camera angles to inject excitement into the action, and edited by Per K Kirkegaard and Per Sandholt. And for those unaware of the outcome, it does make for exciting cinema.
And as with Battle Of The Sexes, much of the success of the film is due to the casting – both lead actors bear a strong physical similarity to their real-life counterparts. Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason is perfect as Borg and is convincing throughout in portraying the champion consumed by his own inner demons and doubts. Shia LaBeouf is perfectly cast as the hot-tempered McEnroe, and you can sense that, especially given his own off-screen dramas, he has some special insights into the character and his efforts to be taken seriously and get some respect. This is arguably his best performance for quite some time.
Skarsgard brings intelligence and dignity and an avuncular quality to his performance as Borg’s coach. In a nice piece of casting the younger Borg seen in flashbacks is played by Borg’s real-life son Leo, hence the strong resemblance that makes it seem like we are watching archival footage. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny lends solid support in her role as Romanian tennis player Mariana Simionescu, who eventually became Borg’s wife.
Borg McEnroe has the makings of a crowd-pleasing sports drama, but unlike the more commercial Battle Of The Sexes, it has only been given a limited art house release locally.