OUT 22 september CERT U / 100 mins
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/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/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.