Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - JONATHAN PILE


DI­REC­TOR Janus Metz Ped­er­sen

CAST Sver­rir Gud­na­son, Shia Labeouf, Stel­lan Skars­gård, Tuva Novotny

PLOT The story of the great ri­valry be­tween Wim­ble­don cham­pion Björn Borg (Gud­na­son) and tur­bu­lent young tal­ent John Mcenroe (Labeouf), which came to a head in the 1980 Wim­ble­don fi­nal in front of a world­wide au­di­ence of mil­lions.

FOR THE SAKE of ar­gu­ment, let’s ac­cept the 1980 Wim­ble­don fi­nal is the great­est ten­nis match of all time. It was cer­tainly the great­est at the time — that Nadal-ver­sus-fed­erer fi­nal was still 28 years away. And it’s the fo­cus of this biopic: sworn ri­vals Björn Borg (Gud­na­son), the level-headed gen­tle­man, and chal­lenger John Mcenroe (Labeouf), the fiery “su­per­brat”, com­ing to­gether on Cen­tre Court to play out a near four-hour epic for the ages. Borg was aim­ing for his fifth straight Wim­ble­don ti­tle, Mcenroe hop­ing for his first. Ev­ery­thing that went be­fore was sim­ply back­ground to this mo­ment. The stage was set.

We start just prior to the tour­na­ment. Borg is feel­ing the pres­sure of fame and Mcenroe is ir­ri­tated by both his rep­u­ta­tion and the fo­cus on Borg when­ever he’s in­ter­viewed. But de­spite public pre­con­cep­tions about their dif­fer­ing men­tal states, it’s the Swede we see high on his Monaco bal­cony, lean­ing over the handrail as though he’s go­ing to top­ple over, be­fore push­ing him­self back up. Some­thing is amiss.

The ti­tle is styled Borg vs Mcenroe, but

‘Borg > Mcenroe’ would be more ap­pro­pri­ate, such is the fo­cus on one player over the other. The Amer­i­can’s back­story, con­cen­trat­ing on his over­bear­ing par­ents, is dealt with in a few short scenes, but Borg is prop­erly scru­ti­nised. He’s seen as a young boy hav­ing Mcenroe-style rants at um­pires, be­ing sus­pended from his ten­nis club for his be­hav­iour and run­ning through a for­est in a fury (an un­for­tu­nate set­ting for any­one who re­mem­bers Andy Sam­berg punch-danc­ing out his rage in a wooded glen in Hot Rod). The point be­ing: the two men aren’t so dif­fer­ent. But while one learned to in­ter­nalise, chan­nelling his drive and de­ter­mi­na­tion into a sin­gu­lar fo­cus, the other didn’t. Borg recog­nises much of him­self in Mcenroe; Mcenroe doesn’t have that lux­ury.

It’s Mcenroe with which the film has most prob­lems. Not in Shia Labeouf’s per­for­mance (and he re­ally nails the hair-and-head­band combo), but in how he’s pre­sented to the au­di­ence. It doesn’t, for ex­am­ple, serve the ‘he’s the un­der­dog and he needs to prove some­thing to his fa­ther’ drama to re­veal he was al­ready a Grand Slam win­ner by 1980, win­ning his first US Open the year be­fore.

Be­cause, of course, all this is lead­ing up to that 1980 fi­nal. It’s not ex­actly Ti­tanic in terms of ev­ery­one know­ing the end­ing, but you’d imag­ine the ma­jor­ity of the au­di­ence will know how it turns out. Still, it man­ages to serve up the req­ui­site ten­sion as the match hits the fourth set tie-break. If any­thing, it’s over too quickly. But while Borg vs Mcenroe is struc­tured like a stan­dard sports movie, di­rec­tor Janus Metz Ped­er­sen’s am­bi­tions are loftier — aim­ing to get in­side the minds of two great ri­vals and com­peti­tors. In that re­spect, though, it’s only half suc­cess­ful.

VER­DICT A sports film with an art­house sen­si­bil­ity. It ben­e­fits greatly from its cho­sen sub­ject mat­ter — two of the most re­mark­able char­ac­ters in sport­ing his­tory — but only man­ages to truly get un­der the skin of one of them.

Swede emo­tion: Björn Borg (Sver­rir Gud­na­son) meets John Mcenroe (Shia Labeouf) at Cen­tre Court.

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