Growing up in the UK, the BBC’s annual coverage of the Wimbledon championship was a major event. Tuning in to fill the void between domestic football seasons, before eventually getting sucked into the pre-Andy Murray drama that grew out of inevitable British failure year after year, one was regularly faced with a lively American commentator who, according to the generation behind us, used to swear quite a lot on court. As we got older, the legend of John McEnroe and his great Swedish rival, Björn Borg, became clearer. It was a gripping conflict, featuring two of the greatest players and one of the finest grand slam finals of the 20th century.
So, of course, 35-odd years later a film was commissioned to commemorate such an event. Janus Metz Pedersen’s drama-laden biopic, starring Sverrir Gudnason as Borg and Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe, popped up unexpectedly at this year’s VIFF. Playing to an audience made up of numerous eager witnesses to that seemingly world-stopping moment in time during the summer of 1980, Borg vs McEnroe (which we also reviewed upon its UK release) chugs along nicely for the most part, featuring plenty of dry humour to compliment the stark, lonely lifestyles of its titular characters.
Borg’s intense backstory ends up claiming the majority of the spotlight – perhaps a disservice to McEnroe; whose interesting childhood is hinted at, but ultimately glossed over – and Gudnason certainly does the role justice with a reflective, high-strung performance. LaBeouf too is great to watch as McEnroe; unleashing wave after wave of frustrated public immaturity, while doing his best to convey a greater private depth, unfortunately left a little thin in Ronnie Sandahl’s script. In support, Stellan Skarsgård’s wise but weary turn as Lennart Bergelin – Borg’s coach – stands out alongside our dual leads.
While Borg vs McEnroe is an enjoyable, albeit lighter-than-it-could-have-been examination of its collective subjects, another shortfall is the rather drawn out climax that is the Wimbledon final itself. Though the film is about two top tennis players, the off-the-court tales end up trumping the finale in straight sets (sorry). The lengthy depiction of the impossible-to-replicate clash of tennis titans could likely have been cut down and redistributed to the preceding drama, a move that whole would have only benefited the film as a whole.
Despite this, Pedersen’s picture remains a restrained, well-made biopic in a genre that so often resorts to hamming it up to the max; serving up a curious portrayal of the scrutinising pressure present at the heart of any top-level individual sporting contest. Like the Wimbledon final for all of us once-a-year tennis fans, however, Borg vs McEnroe is an interesting distraction, rather than a timeless classic.
Did you enjoy Borg vs McEnroe? Let us know!