Monday, 12 July 2021

Mubi Monday: Borg Vs. McEnroe (2017)

John McEnroe and Björn Borg are two titans of the sport of tennis. This film focuses on what was arguably their biggest, and best, match. A Wimbledon final that saw McEnroe as the main challenger for Borg, who was aiming for his fifth consecutive win there. McEnroe was hated by the crowds, his crude and abrasive manner at odds with how everyone wanted people to be behaved at Wimbledon, whereas Borg was known for his icy cool demeanour. But what would happen when these two men finally met?

Like many other sport movies, Borg Vs. McEnroe is about much more than just the sport. It is about two very different men who actually have a lot in common, shown in flashback sequences that allow viewers to see the dedication and pain it can take to reach a professional level in the sport. 

Directed by Janus Metz Pedersen, from a screenplay written by Ronnie Sandahl, there’s a hell of a lot here that is done perfectly, including (most importantly) the tennis itself. The casting feels right throughout, rather than using familiar faces just to make the whole thing an easier sell.

Having said that, I cannot think of more perfect casting than Shia LaBeouf in the role of McEnroe. Constantly simmering with anger, ready to hurl expletives at everyone around him, and generally distracting everyone from his talent with terrible behaviour and derision of those around him, surely LaBeouf saw plenty in this role that he could identify with. At the other end of the spectrum is Sverrir Gudnason, perfectly portraying the cool, perhaps a bit too stifled at times, and super-professional Borg. Stellan Skarsgård is allowed to be his usual excellent self, playing Borg’s tough and exacting coach, and others do good work, but the film rarely moves away from LaBeouf or Gudnason for too long. 

Everything is a build up to the final tennis match, and Pedersen uses every cinematic trick at his disposal to emulate the excitement and tension. The score, the editing, the physical performances, it all comes together to really throw viewers into the thick of a match that has become more important to either player than “just one more victory”.

It does help if you are interested in tennis, or either man being portrayed here, but Borg Vs. McEnroe does more than just explore what happens on the court. It tries to provide moments from two parallel lives to show how two players ended up on very similar journeys to become very different people. The final result may not be an ace, but it’s a damn good shot nonetheless. 


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