Skilfully made by Swedish filmmaker Janus Metz (the award-winning Armadillo), this film is essentially a biopic about tennis icon Bjorn Borg that centres on his fascinating rivalry with John McEnroe. Indeed, in Scandinavia, the film is simply titled Borg. But the script has a complexity to it that finds clever parallels between two players who seem on the surface to be opposites. And it has things to say that will resonate with audiences who know nothing about tennis history.
It’s set around the 1980 Wimbledon final, an epic match that captured the world’s attention as it pitted the ice-cool four-time champion Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) against the volcanically tempered upstart McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf, in a nifty bit of casting). While it felt like a battle between the old guard and a young upstart, there were actually only three years between 24-year-old Borg and 21-year-old McEnroe. But while Borg was intensely focussed, meeting with his manager Lennart (Stellan Skarsgard) and keeping his fiancee (Tuva Novotny) at arm’s length, McEnroe was partying with his friends, fellow players Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) and Vitas Garulitis (Robert Emms), at least until time came to meet them on court.
The script digs occasionally into McEnroe’s childhood, but spends considerably more time with Borg over the years (played as a youngster by Leo Borg, Bjorn’s son, and as a teen by Marcus Mossberg). Intriguingly, when he was younger Borg was a lot more like McEnroe, with a short temper that erupts into epic tantrums, and watching him he learn to suppress them is fascinating. In the present day, Gudnason and LaBeouf capture the characters perfectly both on-court and off, finding big contrasts and more subtle similarities. And both Novotny and Skarsgard have strong scenes of their own, creating real-life people out of what could have been simplistic side roles.
But then the entire film has a richness to it that adds constant interest. It’s shot in a way that brilliantly recreates the period, including just enough tennis to show the players’ different styles, but never turning into a full-on sports movie. Much of the film cleverly looks like vintage TV footage or home movies, adding to the story’s themes rather than creating the usual stand-up-and-cheer biopic. So lets us experience what it feels like to play in the spotlight of Centre Court. Although since this is a film about the internal journeys of these two great players, it comes across as somewhat cold, focussing on personal battles rather than the more spectacular ones they fought in the public eye.