Borg/McEnroe review – needle-free account of celebrated on-court duel never breaks a sweat

first_imgThis tennis film feels like a two-hour baseline rally, and it’s not just the rackets that are made of wood. It is all about the allegedly fascinating psychological face-off between supercool Swede Björn Borg and the superbrat challenger from New York, John McEnroe – played respectively by Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf. It culminates in their first, titanic Wimbledon confrontation in the 1980 final. That really was an unbearably tense contest, but at the end of this film my nails remained salon-fresh. The awful truth was that for all their rivalry and wildly different styles, there wasn’t any needle between these two men personally, no tension, nothing outside the tennis court for us to get excited about.Really, almost any other pairing of characters from this film would have been more interesting: there is McEnroe/Peter Fleming, his compatriot player and supposed friend on whom John might have played nasty gamesmanship tricks in the changing room. There’s McEnroe/McEnroe Sr, the demanding dad and professional lawyer who drove him hard. And there’s Borg/Lennart Bergelin, the coach and mentor played by Stellan Skårsgard with a perpetual look of priestly sorrow. Duels or sporting contests or grudge matches of any sort can make successful cinema: there was Rush, about racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and of course Frost/Nixon about the famous interview. Audiences have yet to see the forthcoming Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone and Steve Carell as tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, fighting to see whether men’s or women’s tennis is better. However that comes out, it’s a tennis film which has the advantage of being about something other than tennis. As far as this goes, Borg and McEnroe have all the bromance chemistry of Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst in the notorious romcom Wimbledon. It feels like someone’s been over-diluting the Robinson’s Barley Water.•Borg/McEnroe was screened at the Toronto film festival and is released 22 September in the UK. reviews Festivals Share on WhatsApp John McEnroe Share on Pinterest Well, LaBeouf is good casting – really, the only possible casting – and he channels McEnroe’s simmering resentment and winner-rage plausibly enough. (I wonder if there were any real-estate moguls in New York around that time for him to model himself on?) As for Borg, Gudnason is certainly an eerie lookalike. But his performance seems set on showing us that underneath that bland, slightly dull exterior there was a … well, let’s just say he seems the complete master of his personality. Borg suppressed his temper to become a great tennis player; but then McEnroe did the opposite and he’s a great player too. So what’s the life lesson here? What’s the point? They’re both great players, great guys, and there’s a kind of self-cancelling evenness at work. The sweatband remains dry. Toronto film festival 2017 Support The Guardian Shia LaBeouf Since you’re here… … we have a small favour to ask. More people, like you, are reading and supporting the Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we made the choice to keep our reporting open for all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay.The Guardian will engage with the most critical issues of our time – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. At a time when factual information is a necessity, we believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity at its heart.Our editorial independence means we set our own agenda and voice our own opinions. Guardian journalism is free from commercial and political bias and not influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This means we can give a voice to those less heard, explore where others turn away, and rigorously challenge those in power.We hope you will consider supporting us today. We need your support to keep delivering quality journalism that’s open and independent. Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you. Read more Reuse this content Share on Facebook Share on Messenger Twitter Facebook Game, set and movie: what makes a winning tennis film? Share on Twitter Pinterest Topics The Recap: sign up for the best of the Guardian’s sport coverage Wimbledon Share on LinkedIn Toronto film festival Read more Share via Email Bergelin was Borg’s tough trainer from when he was a teenager, the man who beat out of the young Swede precisely that kind of immature tantrum for which McEnroe later became notorious: telling him to focus his energies on the game. Borg’s real-life son Leo plays the young star between nine and 12 years old. There is one startling scene where the later-teen Borg, after a stern rebuke, storms off into some remote Swedish woodland for a dark-twilight-of the-tennis-soul, raging at the game and at himself, smashing away at the splintering bark with his racket. This scene may have been inspired by Andy Samberg in the comedy Hot Rod, doing his famous cathartic dance in the forest.Actually, the film does show the adult Borg getting cross with Bergelin, even firing him. But it’s so banal, you wonder if anything has happened at all. “You’re acting like a baby, treating the people who care for you like dirt!” shouts Lennart. Is he? I must have missed that. All I could see was him being bland. You find yourself waiting for something to happen that isn’t a tennis match, and the tennis itself conforms to the rule that tennis on film isn’t exciting. Something about the grammar and structure of movie editing cancels the rhythm and cumulative drama of tennis itself. Tennislast_img

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