The second Curzon film I’ve seen this month to deal with the impossibility of finding satisfaction in a chosen pursuit1 Swedish production Borg Vs McEnroe seeks to add a touch of psychological depth to the public personas of the legendary tennis rivals.
A four-time Wimbledon champion at the age of twenty-four, Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) may look like a particularly chiselled hippy, but his calm, focused demeanour makes for an easy hero-villain narrative when contrasted with that of his most prominent challenger, curly-haired infant terrible John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), who seems singularly unable to make it through a match without cursing out the umpire or spectators. However, as the film presents it, the two competitors may have had more in common than the papers or pundits accounted for.
Ronnie Sandahl’s screenplay uses Borg’s troubled adolescence as key to his adult composure -Stellan Skasgard AKA Scandinavian father figure of choice plays coach Lennert Bergelin, who teaches Borg to keep a lid on his emotions2 – but is unable to similarly unlock the nervy McEnroe; beyond a slightly tense relationship with his parents.3
Director Janus Metz Pedersen seeks to capture the fraught, exhausting back and forth of their extended showdown in the 1980 Wimbledon final; pivoting between ambivalence and ambiguity as our sympathies shift almost from point to point. Who wants it more? Who needs it more?4 Alternating between graceful overhead – 5 and stylish action shots, set to a plaintive string score, the film portrays both the scope and immediacy of the sport; reminding me less of any tennis film I’ve seen before than Ron Howard Formula One drama Rush.6
Unlike, say, boxing, which lends itself to tortured explorations of the male psyche, tennis has been mainly limited to a point of interest in various rom-coms, e.g. Match Point, Wimbledon.7 With Battle Of The Sexes due to make its European premiere at London Film Festival any day now,8 we’ll shortly be doubling down on dramatic depictions of tennis rivalries. Borg Vs McEnroe may not exactly manage a Grand Slam, but, with committed performances from its two leads9 it’s definitely no double-fault.
- The first being Final Portrait, another two-hander, but one ostensibly about collaboration (or at least enabling) as part of the artistic process.
- A could-have-been-contender, he, too, has anger issues: when challenged, Skasgard’s eyes widen like those of a startled horse.
- Teenage Borg (Markus Mossberg) gets a whole plot strand, which reaches a dramatic climax with a furious outburst in a desolate forest; young McEnroe (Jackson Gann) basically just gets a haircut.
- As I say in my review of Final Portrait, which achieves a similar thing, I’m a sucker for when form and content align as they seem to do here.
- Which often show just one half of the court so that the players seem to be competing against an immovable object; much like the garage wall against which the Swede (played here by Björn Borg’s son Leo) trained as youth.
- As opposed to Final Portrait costar Geoffrey Rush.
- Borg Vs McEnroe opens with an André Agassi quote – “Tennis uses the language of life…”, that lays out its dramatic stall, so to speak, pretty early on.
- I will, of course, as in recent years, be covering the Festival in detail.
- Especially LaBeouf, who, in capturing McEnroe’s teary-eyed, all-consuming commitment to the sport, has pulled off a minor McConaissance of his own and cemented himself as one of the most fascinating actor/no-longer-celebrities around.