Director – Janus Metz
Cast – Shia LaBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason, Stellan Skarsgard, Tuva Novotny
Rating – 3/5
Tennis is a duel often misunderstood as sport, and John McEnroe is one of its most misunderstood soldiers. In 1980, the 20-year-old American was considered one of the game’s most promising players, someone who could dethrone reigning champion Bjorn Borg. Their journeys to the top couldn’t have been more different, but they’d converge at the Championships at Wimbledon, when the two knew, even before a single ball had been tossed, that they would meet in the final. As far as rivalries go, a Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t have written a more dramatic one.
Borg was a clinical player, rarely displaying emotion on the court, and even less off it. McEnroe’s antics, however, even decades later, aren’t easily forgotten — his frequent bust-ups with the officials, his less-than-gentlemanly attitude on court, and his volatile temperament made him an easy punching bag. When the two stepped out to play the match that would – until the 2008 final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – be called the greatest ever, McEnroe was booed.
And long before George RR Martin dreamt about his Song of Ice and Fire, that’s what the press were already calling the Borg-McEnroe rivalry.
While the new film, based on their legendary encounter on the pristine lawns of the All England Club (and the events leading up to it), makes an attempt at raw sentimentality that McEnroe would be proud of, it ends up being – at least for the most part – an emotionally distant machine, a description that could just as easily be used for Borg.
And all this is made stranger for the fact that the movie wears its sympathies for McEnroe quite proudly – and how could it not for he was, as one commentator declares early on, the underdog. Like the sport he shed blood, sweat and tears for, he was misunderstood – which is part of the reason why Shia LaBeouf was so interested in playing him.
On paper, it’s perfect casting, a symphony – no, a collision – of actor and character that is at once complimentary and jarring. Often, LaBeouf slides ever so softly away from the man we’ve seen so frequently on TV – which means we’re familiar with his habits without even realising it – and bounces into what can only be described as Shia LaBeouf’s side of the court. This is never more apparent than in the recreation of what is perhaps one of the most infamous moments in the sport’s history.
After a dubious call – God knows they happened only with him – McEnroe charges up to the umpire’s chair and delivers those eternal words, “You cannot be serious!”. Only it didn’t happen in 1980. It happened a year later. But such is Borg McEnroe’s desperation – harsh words, but true nonetheless – to provide for fans the optimum John McEnroe experience, that they retroactively brought his all-time famous outburst ahead by a year. And as spoken by Shia LaBeouf, if you close your eyes and imagine explosions, he could be yelling them at Bumblebee and you’d be none the wiser.
It could – and I know this is stepping into some very murky conspiracy theory territory – be one of LaBeouf’s elaborate performance art pieces to exonerate himself – in which case, well played, sir.
As Borg, Sverrir Gudnason positively simmers with intensity. It is a role that requires less talking and more… being… and Gudnason proves that his physical resemblance to Borg is just an added bonus to an all-around excellent performance. What most people would not know is that Borg retired at the age of 26, just two years after the events of this movie, burnt out by years of pressure – first from getting to the top, and then, of staying there. While Borg McEnroe’s largely by-the-book storytelling may leave something to be desired, the respect it shows Borg warrants a discreet Swedish nod of acknowledgment.
Tennis is a misunderstood sport because tennis is a lonely sport. Most people don’t realise that. For hours, you have no one but yourself to deal with on court. Your opponent is usually a blur across the net, occasionally emitting noises, but rarely registering more than that. When a serve misses the box, or a shot lands outside the lines, you have no one to blame but yourself. Victories are fleeting, often forgotten moments later, but every tiny loss weighs like an inescapable reminder of your talentless existence. Every point is an overwhelming explosion of fear, anger, nervousness and elation. And then it happens again, and again, and again; a masochistic ritual that ends not when one man wins, but when the other simply cannot bear it any longer. What’s worse? The only person who gets what you’re going through is the person you have to defeat.
I can confidently say, having languished for a decade on the Indian tennis circuit, that no other film has captured the tumultuous experience of playing the sport better than Borg McEnroe. The actual tennis looks convincing, an achievement that should go a long way with fans, who can easily be turned away by messy recreations of their favourite sport (I’m looking at you, Kirsten Dunst).
But as a piece of filmmaking, we deserve better. As a sports film, we’ve seen better. The ball is now in Emma Stone and Steve Carell’s court. Advantage, Battle of the Sexes.
Watch the Borg McEnroe trailer here