Director: Janus Metz
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: 22nd September
Borg/McEnroe is a beautiful film. It is not the intense tennis sequences (though they are impressive) that linger after viewing, but the cinematography, the use of sound, and the impressive performances from a collectively strong cast.
Director Janus Metz focuses on the first encounter between Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) at Wimbledon in 1980 to create a slow-burning, intense film that muses upon the psychological impact of pressure and the different ways it manifests. The plot moves seamlessly between the 1980 competition and each player’s backstory. Borg is famed for his composure, while McEnroe is notorious for his on-court tantrums. Metz delves into the psychology behind these characteristics in a poignant, nuanced tale.
The juxtaposition between the two characters is highlighted by the use of sound – Borg’s sequences are quiet, filled with a stillness that is almost suffocating, while McEnroe explodes onto the screen with loud, jarring musical accompaniment. Both Gudnason and LaBeouf give standout performances. Gudnason invokes a sense of quiet desperation, portraying a person taught to internalise pressure and their emotions and the gradual cracking of that composed shell. It is an immense physical performance: Lingering close-ups reveal his thought process in his eyes and body language rather than through dialogue (which is both in Swedish and English). LaBeouf gives a strong performance brimming with pent-up aggression and anxious agitation. The narrative weaves the two stories together to gradually reveal the similarities between the two.
It would be easy to create a hero/villain dynamic in this story. Instead, we are given a thoughtful and empathetic portrayal of both Borg and McEnroe. Both are flawed. Both are engaging. When it comes to the final showdown, it is hard to know who to root for. The lead actors are accompanied by an impressive supporting cast. Tuva Novotny, the lone prominent female character to punctuate this mostly male-dominated narrative, plays the hard put-upon fiancée of Borg with empathy. Stellan Skarsgård turns a typically powerful shift as Borg’s coach Lennart Bergelin. The young actors who depict Borg and McEnroe in their youth do a fantastic job – their performances pack as much emotional weight as Gudnason and LaBeouf.
Borg/McEnroe is a tense, poignant film. Its one pitfall is that it feels as though some of the story has been omitted: we are told at the end that the two later became friends, which would have been interesting to see on-screen. It is understandable why the film is confined to only as far as that first meeting at Wimbledon however. The atmosphere gradually intensifies and it is an evocative film. It is not necessary to be an avid tennis fan to enjoy Borg/McEnroe, and it is a quietly powerful film that should not be missed.