LaBeouf is the winner in tennis rivalry
Films about tennis don’t usually enjoy the best of reps. 2017 could change all that. Battle Of The Sexes, about the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, had a positive reception at Toronto and British audiences get their say when the film arrives at next month’s London Film Festival. Before then, another true life tennis drama hits the screens, featuring two of the biggest players in the men’s game ever to grace Centre Court at Wimbledon.
But don’t go thinking Borg V McEnroe is just a rivalry drama in the same way as Ron Howard’s James Hunt/Niki Lauda head-to-head, Rush. This is closer to an art house approach to sport. It’s directed by a Dane, stars two Swedes (Sverrir Gudnarson and Stellan Skarsgard) and a chunk of the dialogue is in Swedish, with subtitles. Its appeal comes from the two names in the title, even though the film doesn’t necessarily see itself as mainstream.
The focus is the first of the two Wimbledon finals contested by the number one and two male tennis players in the world. Ice cool Bjorn Borg (Gudnarson) from Sweden, world number one and aiming for his fifth Wimbledon title in a row. And challenger, America’s John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), loud, brash, controversial and overflowing with talent. The match was played in 1980, it was McEnroe’s first attempt to win the crown and he’d upset a lot of officials and tennis fans along the way. By way of flashbacks, we’re taken into the players’ backgrounds, to give us an understanding of what motivated them as they grew up and what moulded their characters.
For much of the film, it feels more like Borg V Borg, with McEnroe short changed in favour of the Swede. Even Borg’s own son, Leo, plays the youngest of the three incarnations of the champion: according to director, Janus Metz, the teenager took the initiative and asked to be auditioned for the role, which ultimately resulted in a set visit from Borg himself and his presence at the film’s Swedish premiere.
We’re shown how, in his early days, he repeatedly hit tennis balls against a block of garages, how his temperament was anything but icy as a teenager, how Lennart Bergelin (Skarsgard) took him in hand and how, as a player, he developed his myriad of pre-match superstitions, something that’s been associated with tennis players ever since.
Conversely, McEnroe’s story is more to do with coping with his father’s sky-high expectations, his friendships with other players, mainly Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) and the flamboyant Vitas Gerulaitis (Robert Emms). And, of course, there’s his confrontational attitude. As he tells one journalist, he puts himself on the line every single time he plays a match, he lays it all out there. And the point the film is making is that both he and Borg do that. They have more in common than they appear to: their public personae make them perfect rivals, but they both burn with the same fierce ambition, the desire to win at all costs. They just dealt with it differently.
As a re-creation of a legendary match, it works well, paying attention to the details that tennis fans will be looking for – the Dan Maskell soundalike commentator, McEnroe Senior’s characteristic floppy hat. The resemblance between Gudnarson and Borg is uncanny: he really looks the part, even if he doesn’t have that much to do as a character other than be introspective, brooding and crotchety at times. The acting demands are more on LaBeouf because it would be too easy to make McEnroe look like a caricature and he avoids that by a mile. He gets the intonation right, he even reproduces McEnroe’s low crouch before serving and his is the stellar turn.
Borg V McEnroe doesn’t quite cut it as a film about a rivalry and that’s simply because the emphasis is skewed. But for tennis fans, whether they remember the 1980 final or not, it is surprisingly and refreshingly impressive. It was no ordinary tennis match – and this isn’t an ordinary film.
Borg V McEnroe is released in cinemas on Friday, 22nd September.