A match made in sport­ing heaven

The fi­nal was 37 years ago but this is still edge of the seat stuff, writes Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM RE­VIEWS - BORG VS MCEN­ROE

Directed by Janus Metz Ped­er­sen. Star­ring Sver­rir Gud­na­son, Shia LaBeouf, Stel­lan Skars­gård, Tuva Novotny, Robert Emms. Cert 15A, gen re­lease, 100mins Take a hike, Nadal. There have been other great tennis ri­val­ries and matches, but noth­ing in the sport’s his­tory can com­pare with the 1980 Wim­ble­don fi­nal, a ready-made drama in which the coolly ef­fi­cient Björn Borg faced the volatile Amer­i­can un­der­dog John McEn­roe.

Al­most ev­ery viewer with enough in­ter­est to pay for a ticket to Janus Metz Ped­er­sen’s drama­ti­sa­tion of that his­toric tour­na­ment will prob­a­bly know the win­ner. It’s a tribute to the di­rec­tor and his two charis­matic stars that the film some­how keeps one on the edge of their seat, none­the­less.

As the film opens, Borg (Sver­rir Gud­na­son) is at the height of his tennis pow­ers and en­tirely im­pris­oned by his own celebrity. Short in­ter­ludes in­di­cate a trou­bled fig­ure with a de­gree of ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der (he’s dis­con­certed when his coach picks him up in a car lack­ing the same up­hol­stery as last year) and a crowd­ing of fans and money-spin­ning en­dorse­ments.

Equally ef­fi­cient flash­backs de­pict a kid once known for McEn­roe-style out­bursts on court. Borg the younger is looked down on by the sport’s au­thor­i­ties due to his hum­ble back­ground and un­gentle­manly con­duct, un­til kindly Davis Cup coach Len­nart Bergelin (Stel­lan Skars­gård) takes him un­der his wing. This ear­lier in­car­na­tion is es­sayed by Björn’s son, Leo, and later by Markus Moss­berg.

Across the At­lantic, the young McEn­roe is pushed to­wards over­achieve­ment on all fronts by his par­ents. By the time he (as played by Shia LaBeouf) ar­rives in Lon­don, he has mapped out a path to meet Borg in the fi­nal and is be­ing jeered by the tabloids as a “su­per­brat”.

In­ter­est­ingly, and per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, the film is called Borg in Swe­den. LaBeouf’s flair for per­for­mance art makes him a per­fect choice to re-en­act McEn­roe’s care­fully cal­i­brated shouty shenani­gans, but un­til they meet on court, Swedish screen­writer Ron­nie San­dahl’s sub­tle script is largely trained on his own coun­try­man.

LaBeouf makes McEn­roe his own, while co-star Sver­rir Gud­na­son does a re­mark­able ap­prox­i­ma­tion of Borg, right down to his walk and hockey-de­rived back­hand. But some­thing odd and rather fan­tas­tic hap­pens dur­ing the fi­nal se­quence, when both ac­tors seem to dis­ap­pear into their re­spec­tive roles, mir­ror­ing how Borg and McEn­roe’s tics equally dis­ap­peared dur­ing that 1980 en­counter.

Early on, a chat-show host in­tro­duces McEn­roe and then pro­ceeds to talk about noth­ing but Borg: “You and Borg are as dif­fer­ent as two peo­ple can be,” he of­fers. Oth­ers bill the match as Ice Vs Fire. Borg Vs McEn­roe clev­erly demon­strates that these tennis ti­tans weren’t so dif­fer­ent after all.

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