Their dynamic was already the stuff of cinema – the icy European blond who never let his emotions flair, pummelling his opponents match after match at a preposterously young age. Then there’s the scruffy American, tight curls held back in his headband, quick to anger and even quicker to swear in what’s traditionally a court of utter austerity and decorum. It may lack the blood of a Gladiatorial prizefight, but the competition between Björn Borg and John McEnroe equals both the hype and the operatic nature of this kind of combat.
Directed by Dane Janus Metz, Borg/McEnroe plays as much as Scandinavian psychological drama as sports flick, delving deep in the minds of athletes at different moments in their careers. The casting clears one major hurdle, with uncanny resemblance to their characters and a particular metatextual fascination with one of the leads. As McEnroe Shia Labeouf is near perfect, not only bringing believable rage to the screen, but also that tabloid sense of the talent who is also an asshole that had followed much of his career. Labeouf has become for some a star to deride, yet he consistently provides performances that are subtle and often quite beautiful while always being believable, and none may be better than the one he provides here.
Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason is hardly a newcomer with dozens of credits under his belt, but his lack of international acclaim is sure to change with his take on Borg. His role is the ostensive lead, and he provides the right degree of gravitas, anger and chiselled good looks that underscore the Rock Star personality of the tennis phenom.
On a technical level Metz’s film is equally exceptional, with the visceral sounds of smashing balls punctuating the rapid editing style that never devolves into incoherence. This is about as exciting as you’re going to make tennis look on screen, and even the voiceovers that provide context for the uninitiated are handled with more dexterity than is often the case in such films.
Stellan Skarsgård provides another of his usual stalwart performances, and Tuva Novotny manages to elevate a slight character as Borg’s fiancé into something more than a stereotype. Other tennis stars at the time are played by a mix of fine takes, but the core of the film is really Gudnason’s struggles and Labeouf’s confidence masking his deep uncertainty in conflict with a hunger for success.
You can throw in whatever puns you wish – It’s a smash! Serves up an ace! – it’s not every day you see a tennis film manage to elevate the competition to such mythic heights. A sports biopic that like the best of them (hell, Rush!) appeals both to fans of the sport and neophytes, crafting a work that works as film as much as celebration for pre-existing fans. With great style and panache Borg/McEnroe provides terrific insight into these iconic characters, mixing boldly the best of both European and American filmmaking into a great, unified whole – fitting, given that’s exactly the same magic alchemy that the Wimbledon final provided decades ago.