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Review: Tedious tennis recreation stops Borg vs McEnroe being Rush on grass

PUBLISHED: 12:16 22 September 2017

Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg in Borg Vs McEnroe. Photo: Curzon Artificial Eye/Julie Vrabelova

Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg in Borg Vs McEnroe. Photo: Curzon Artificial Eye/Julie Vrabelova

Curzon Artificial Eye/Julie Vrabelova

Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen immortalises the epic Wimbledon battle between iceman reigning cham pion Bjorn Borg and hot-headed ‘super-brat’ challenger John McEnroe in sports biopic that sides with the Swede.

Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe in Borg Vs McEnroe. Photo: Curzon Artificial Eye/Julie Vrabelova Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe in Borg Vs McEnroe. Photo: Curzon Artificial Eye/Julie Vrabelova

Borg vs McEnroe (15)

***

Björn Borg wins in the end. I don’t normally like giving away endings, but this Swedish production about the great tennis rivalry, centred on the weeks of the 1980 Wimbledon championship, is clearly a rigged game.

The traditional tennis watching position is the swivelling head sat in line with the net; this film though keeps its gaze fixed firmly on Borg’s side. The Mc is really just making up the numbers, which is tough when the number being made up is two.

Tuva Novotny as Mariana Simionescu and Stellan Skarsgard as Lennart Bergelin in Borg Vs McEnroe. Photo: Curzon Artificial Eye/Julie Vrabelova Tuva Novotny as Mariana Simionescu and Stellan Skarsgard as Lennart Bergelin in Borg Vs McEnroe. Photo: Curzon Artificial Eye/Julie Vrabelova

When Shia Lebeouf is first seen in his John McEnroe get up there is a snigger of appreciation in the audience because it is such perfect casting. Shia seems born to deliver the line “You can not be serious,” but his McEnroe doesn’t take off, doesn’t become anything more than the gimmick of the bad boy maverick film star playing the bad boy maverick tennis star.

Opposite him, Sverrir Gudnason is an uncanny Borg. And it fits that the actor is almost unknown because the role is a man who wants to persuade the world that he is without baggage.

Borg Vs McEnroe is a generic sporting picture and inferior to Rush, which told a similar story much better, but it is still perfectly enjoyable.

You have the struggle to the top, the loneliness of fame and the rivalry that becomes a bond of understanding. The supporting cast are strong, especially Stellan Skargard as the gruff coach and former player Lennart Bergelin, still living off his three Wimbledon quarter final appearances He sees something in the wayward young Borg (played by three performers including Borg’s own son, Leo) and Vitas Gerulaitis (Robert Emms).

Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg in Borg Vs McEnroe. Photo: Curzon Artificial Eye/Julie Vrabelova Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg in Borg Vs McEnroe. Photo: Curzon Artificial Eye/Julie Vrabelova

The film’s only real drawback is the tennis. I don’t think it works on the big screen in the way motor racing, boxing or horse racing usually do.

This isn’t really a problem while the film skittles through the events of the two protagonists’ lives in the lead up to Wimbledon. But the film then rather comes to a grinding halt for a lengthy recreation of their epic final, the one where Borg tries to make it five in a row.

As one of the commentators puts it “this just goes on and on,” and so it does. It’s not as dull as Clint Eastwood’s re-staging of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final in Invictus, but there aren’t many films that would chose to have a climatic battles that consisted of two men making the same racket swipes, in the same location, for around 20 minutes.

The film’s big twist is to make Borg the interesting character. His cold calm demeanour is simply the lid he keeps on a mass of neurosis, compulsions and superstitions. It is intriguing that this man who was such a heartthrob was actually barely able to function socially.

After his playing days were over McEnroe forged quite a career as a ‘personality’, one that perhaps outshines his sporting one. Borg though has remain largely anonymous. The film seems to suggest that he had sacrificed his personality to his quest for success, and having gained it, found it an inadequate reward.

It’s quite a dark conclusion for a sporting drama to reach; if only because it makes you wonder why you should bother watching it in the first place.

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