TIFF 2017: Smashing BORG/MCENROE Delivers

A perfectly cast match ups the tennis film game.

Tennis is a game that’s defined by sending a ball to the opposite side. Back-and-forth is its stock in trade, with move/countermove providing the kinetic excitement of the game. Even spectators look disapproving as they nod from one player to the next, following the action as it’s served in continuing flourishes of return after return.

This two sides of the same court duality played out in more talismanic fashion with the rivalry between two of its most accomplished players. Back in the late 1970s and early '80, Björn Borg was a young phenom, a player seemingly robotic in his comportment who let it all out in his matches. With flowing hair and a fine Scandanavian look he was already legendary in his early twenties, fighting for an unheard of fifth consecutive title at the famed Wimbledon club.

John McEnroe was a brash, up and coming American who generated far more buzz for his outbursts than for his tennis. His was the new generation of player, bringing an anger and passion that was celebrated and derided in equal measure.

Thus the dynamic was set – the cool European, the obnoxious upstart American, in what was to prove to be an immensely memorable championship tournament. And if Borg/McEnroe followed this simple narrative, that’s all we’d get, a kind of Rocky story with rackets instead of boxing gloves.

Instead, we are treated to a film that does more to undermine our expectations about these famous athletes than it does to promote our prejudices. McEnroe is shown to be a misunderstood loner, his outbursts masking general insecurities. He’s also portrayed with a bristling intelligence, something that his more boorish actions seemed to belie.

Borg, meanwhile, is shown to himself have a chip on his shoulder, a young player who also would explode on the court but had been coached to take all the rage and insecurity and put it into his powerful swings. For a film that sets out to pit opposites, its greatest achievement is to show how these two competitors are related not only in sharing the center court, but sharing many of the same characteristics that were often masked by their public personas.

While both players are given equal rank in the title, really this is more Borg’s film than McEnroe’s, and thankfully the casting of Sverrir Gudnason is up to the task of presenting the isolated, somewhat cold character in a compelling light. Flashbacks to young Borg are played by Björn’s son Leo, and this provides a bit of a coup, adding even more verisimilitude to the flashbacks where the explosive player is brought under control by an understanding coach (Stellan Skarsgård).

Yet the real trump card is given Shia Labeouf a chance at this role. As a misunderstood talent often celebrated more for his outbursts than his on court play, there’s much to draw from Shia’s own relationship with fame. Yet it's undeniable that he has tremendous screen presence, and his role here is easily one of his best, convincingly providing the right physical presence and emotional volatility called for in this film.

While much of Janus Metz’s work was done with the impeccable casting, there’s still plenty of room for cinematic showmanship. The matches themselves play out in grand fashion, with overlayed graphics and helpful commentary assisting the uninitiated. Explosive sound design makes the tournament even more epic, and with deft editing from Per K. Kirkegaard and Per Sandholt, as well as sympathetic photography by Niels Thastum, we’re treated to an intimate look at the sport rarely seen on screen.

Metz’s film makes the matches as exhilarating as any car chase and as impactful as a prize fight, owing more to Raging Bull than the traditional, staid ways that tennis is captured on television. With unique camera positions and well-paced execution the film brings the viewer into not only the excitement of the match but the psychological state of its players.

For some the outcome will be well known, for others a surprise, but regardless the magic of the work lies in sustaining suspense even when the outcome is known. This is thanks to these fully committed performances that draw one into their worlds, each pitting their prowess and personalities against one another and leaving it all out on the court.

Borg/McEnroe is more than just a terrific tennis film, it’s a rich and detailed examination of elite competition itself. A wonderful mix between spectacle and Scandanavian drama, this film is as rich, complex and rewarding as the remarkable subjects that give the work its name.