Borg McEnroe (2017)
Directed by: Janus Metz | 108 minutes | drama, biography | Actors: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Leo Borg, Marcus Mossberg, Jackson Gann, Scott Arthur, Ian Blackman, Robert Emms, David Bamber, Mats Blomgren, Jane Perry
Wimbledon, 1980. Reigning champion Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) aims to take his fifth title, something no one has ever achieved before. High-spirited rising star John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) is eager to prove himself as a tennis superstar. Their rivalry and the legendary final they played against each other that year are central to ‘Borg McEnroe’. The crowd favorite in London, Borg is known as an ice bunny. McEnroe is an arrogant and aggressive newcomer who has made few friends in the tennis world with his tirades against the umpires and the throwing of his rackets.
The two tennis players are both obsessed with the sport in their own way. Where Borg loses himself in meticulous preparation – from being transported in the same car as in previous years to checking the tension of the strings of his rackets – McEnroe radiates his barely suppressed anger with every movement. Ronny Sandahl’s clever scenario provides a glimpse into how the titanic battle came about through flashbacks to their early years, and then it turns out that the two aren’t all that different. Borg was only lucky (if you can call it that) that his coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) taught him to control his anger and to no longer express his emotions, but to internalize them. A nice detail here is that Leo Borg, Björn’s son, plays his own father as a starting teenager. Across the Atlantic, young John is belittled by his parents and misbehavior on the field is an outlet for him.
The lead actors could not have been better cast: Sverrir Gudnason bears a stunning resemblance to Borg and Shia LaBeouf is impressive as ‘enfant terrible’ McEnroe. Although both actors are older than the characters they portray, their extraordinary acting makes you quickly forget that. It is difficult to name which of the two has the most difficult leading role. Gudnason is limited in part because he can put little expressive emotion into his playing. Yet he flawlessly conveys that his Borg is a spring that is too tight and that it could explode at any moment. He does have the (home) advantage that he has two direct opponents: Tuva Novotny as his wife Mariana and the always reliable Skarsgård as coach. LaBeouf has to do his tour de force on his own and manages to go pretty deep in a role that could easily have fallen into a superficial imitation of name-calling. The screenplay sometimes makes his McEnroe look a bit thin. The makers are clearly more interested in the Borg character – it’s not for nothing that the film came out in Sweden as ‘Borg’ instead of ‘Borg McEnroe’ – while McEnroe may be a more interesting character. Certainly in the way in which LaBeouf plays him and in doing so undoubtedly drew from his own controversial acting life.
It is not noticeable that this is the first full-length feature film debut of director Janus Metz, who was best known for his documentaries and short films. Metz gets close to his actors and the tennis scenes are beautifully portrayed. Niels Thastum’s dexterous camera work allows Gudnason and LaBeouf to be on the court as much as possible – both received training from former tennis pros – and to re-enact the match without it being obvious to the viewer that no professional athletes are having the game of their lives here. play. The final is nowadays regarded by many connoisseurs as the best match of all time and ‘Borg McEnroe’ manages to capture something of that atmosphere with a good tension building. The nearly four-hour match is cleverly summarized into a few crucial points and every second is captivating, even though the ultimate winner may already be known to the viewer.