The 1980 Wimbledon Men’s Final is widely regarded as one of the great tennis matches in sporting history. It was an epic five-set encounter between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Ice-cool Swedish champion Borg, the world number one, was attempting to win a record fifth consecutive Wimbledon title. Brash American upstart McEnroe, known as the “super brat”, was better known for his on-court tantrums and volatile temper.
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 historic 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 climactic tennis match.
The film gives us a look at the differing personalities of the two players, and their intense rivalry. Borg was the clinical Swede; while McEnroe was the temperamental but talented underdog from New York. While the film shows us their vulnerabilities and doubts, it 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. Indeed, here Borg is starting to grow tired of the spotlight and the trappings of fame. These feelings 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 for conservative tennis fans, who had roundly booed him at the start of the match.
Borg McEnroe is a Scandinavian co-production. Scriptwriter Ronnie Sandahl (a director in his own right with films like Underdog 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 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. His combustible attitude towards the game was much the same – he was a volatile youngster who hated to lose. That was until Lennart Bergelin (played here by prolific Swedish veteran Stellan Skarsgård) took him under his wing. The coach and mentor smoothed out his rough edges and transformed him into a professional player.
The film has been deftly directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz (the terrific Afghanistan war documentary Armadillo), who gives the material an almost documentary-like feel. His staging of the climactic tennis match is gripping stuff. Cinematographer Niels Thastum uses creative camera angles to inject excitement into the action. 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 inner demons. Shia LaBeouf is perfectly cast as the hot-tempered McEnroe. 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. This is arguably his best performance for quite some time.
Skarsgård 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. 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.
Director: Janus Metz
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Tuva Novotny, Stellan Skarsgård
Release Date: 16 November 2017
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television