The first thing I did after watching Danish director Janus Metz's Borg McEnroe was to go back to the YouTube video of the Wimbledon finale between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1980. Though a grainy video, it can't take away the intensity of the match—one of the most talked about in the history of tennis. Metz, in the climactic sequence of the film recreates that mood. It is blood-and-guts, a little less than the real one but intense anyway. It builds up the pressure in you as an audience. However, what he does best is include flashes of some childhood memories of both the players that reflect their desperation to win, come what may.
This approach of the director to revisit their childhood through flashbacks, works really well. It brings out the similarities between the two tennis greats who have always been billed as having very different personalities—Borg as ice-cold and McEnroe as a brat, abusing, losing his temper and throwing tantrums. Through a peek into their childhood, Metz carefully analyses what made Borg(Sverrir Gudnason) and McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) who they were. It's a little skewed towards Borg. Not surprising, though because it is a Scandinavian film. But nevertheless, there's enough about McEnroe in the one-hour-forty-minute film to balance the story of the two rivals who would eventually become friends.
Exploring their childhoods is the most fascinating part of the film. Borg as a child (played by Leo Borg) is difficult to handle. He loses his temper too soon on the court. He has been given ultimatums for his bad behaviour. Coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), however, sees something different in him. He comes to his rescue. In one conversation, he asks a young Borg: “What do you want from tennis?” “To be the best,” replies Borg. A bond is built. Borg has got a mentor, a constant supporter and someone who knows how to channelise his energy in the right direction.
It is fascinating to note that Lennart accompanied Borg everywhere—even on his first date with Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny). One of the first promises that Lennart asks a 15-year-old Borg to make is that he would “never show his emotions” ever on the court. And Borg sticks to it, ultimately leading to his level-headed and controlled behaviour in public; and Gudnason does an awesome job of playing it well.
McEnroe, on the other hand, was a result of parents who expected too much out of him. He is a child prodigy of sorts, a mathematics mastermind as a kid. Displayed well in one scene where his father asks a young McEnroe (Jackson Gann) to solve number quizzes in front of his guests. Young McEnroe does well until a really difficult number cruncher defeats him. His parents are not happy. The bottled up emotions come out on the court, almost always. Though he has been given much lesser screen space, LaBeouf is not just convincing in his portrayal of McEnroe but has even got the mannerisms of the tennis player bang-on.
Ronnie Sandahl's screenplay is interesting with a wise idea to build the story while the two players are anticipating their fate in the Wimbledon finale—fifth for Borg after four consecutive wins; and first for McEnroe. Borg wonders in one scene: “Nobody will remember that I won four Wimbledons in a row. Everybody will remember that I lost the fifth.” Perhaps, true. Had he not won the match that day, we wouldn't have been watching a film that revolves around it. What makes the tournament special is the neck and neck match that can still send shivers down your spine. The story of loss wouldn't have been fascinating in a film that wants Borg to become a hero.
Film: Borg McEnroe
Director: Janus Metz
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard