Film

Borg McEnroe review – true Wimbledon tale starring Shia LaBeouf serves an ace

Not planning to see Swedish director Janus Metz Pedersen's intelligent and absorbing film depicting one of sport's greatest rivalries? You cannot be serious

The 1980 Wimbledon final between Björn Borg and John McEnroe was one of tennis’s great matches. Before I go on any further I should say that I’ve only come to this awareness recently thanks to a new film about this fabled encounter: the film, a Swedish production directed by Janus Metz Pedersen, is called Borg McEnroe. Before watching it I was dimly aware of a few things about these two men – one was an icy blonde, the other a fiery American and both had a predilection for headbands. But I was ignorant about other, arguably more crucial, facts: such as who actually won the match.

All of this may make me supremely unqualified to pass further judgment on the film, but in fact Borg McEnroe is skilfully made to appeal to tennis dummies like me. Yes, it plays up to the pop-cultural stereotype of these sportsmen. Headbands are worn, often and without shame. And yes Björn emerges, initially at least, a cool, self-possessed Viking of few words (played with controlled charisma by Sverrir Gudnason); while McEnroe is the wild-child hothead, a man of sprawling talents and furious tantrums (played by Shia LaBeouf, an actor himself no stranger to controversy).

And yet while the film explores the reputation these two men enjoyed – “Cold Nordic blood and brash New Yorker” is how one TV commentator here describes their meeting in south-west London – it complicates the legend too. Interspersing its lively recreation of the run-up to the Wimbledon finals are flashbacks to the youth of the two competitors. Borg, it turns out, wasn’t always the level-headed customer so beloved of the Wimbledon crowd.

In scenes that subtly point up the casual snobbery of the tennis authorities in Sweden, we learn that Borg was an explosive-tempered teenager whose violent dislike of losing earned him the disapproval of his local club and it’s only through the tough-love of his coach Lennart Bergelin (a font of gruff wisdom, played with Yoda-like calm by Stellan Skarsgård) that he was able to find some equilibrium. Whereas McEnroe’s brattish tendencies (which make the enemy of the Wimbledon crowd – as feral and whimsical in its enthusiasms and disapprovals then as now) are depicted less as the sign of a monstrous ego than the involuntary side-effect of his will to win.

The result is a nuanced and engaging portrait of the competitive mindset of top-flight athletes, part-juicy biopic, part-insightful lesson in sports psychology. The film is especially good at depicting the pressure on Borg as the final approaches, an ordeal he copes with through adherence to a bizarre set of superstitions and rituals (such as walking over newly strung tennis rackets in his bare feet, like a Zen master).

Borg, it turns out, wasn’t always the level-headed customer so beloved of the Wimbledon crowd.

There are funny moments along the way: LaBeouf is great value as McEnroe in his hair-trigger mood, objecting to the distraction that Wimbledon’s birdlife is making to his serve, he yells “the pigeons are ruining my focus”. And it’s poignant, not least in the depicting of the up-and-down, son-father dynamic of Borg and his coach Bergelin.

Best of all, the final 20 minutes that recreate the legendary match in all its improbable twists are really gripping – and perfectly lucid even to those with a limited knowledge of tennis. I couldn’t take the tension and asked the person next to me if he knew who won. He didn’t – which meant I could enjoy the finale to the full. I’ve no idea how this film would play if you knew the outcome of the titular match, but if you don’t, I suspect you’ll have fun finding out from this intelligent and absorbing film.

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