This film played at TIFF, but I did not get the opportunity to see it there. When FNC announced that it was part of their line-up I did not let the opportunity pass me by again. It was the opening night film at TIFF and that peaked my interest. Plus had as subject matter one of the more intriguing rivalries even in professional tennis – the hot tempered American, John McEnroe and the ice cold Swede, Bjorn Borg. What’s not to like?
On top of that you have the intrigue of the mercurial actor Shia LaBeouf, the constant high calibre acting of Stellan Skarsgard and the good looks of Sverrir Gudnason in what could be labelled his break out role.
It is 1980 and we are on the cusp of another Wimbledon. The past four have been won by the male number one player in the world, Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason – from television’s Wallander) and the pressure is on him to win a record fifth in a row. Everyone in the tennis world expects it and Borg, though he is known for his ice cold demeanour, feels it. That means that everyone around him – fiancee Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny – Eat Pray Love) and longtime coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard – Good Will Hunting, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) – is suffering as well.
The pressure comes not only from expectations, but from pressure exerted by young American player, John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf – Transformers, Lawless). McEnroe is the number two ranked player in the world and his personality is the exact opposite of the composed Borg. There is not a close call or noise from the crowd that doesn’t have him throwing a curse laden temper tantrum on court.
Danish director Janus Metz should be applauded for bringing to the screen this look into the rivalry and the men, especially Borg, behind the tennis. Not only does it present these two interesting characters and educate you about what made up their rivalry, but it analyzes their behaviour giving you insight into what in their younger years made them the men and players they became.
The picture becomes clear because of the two superior performances by the leads. Both LaBeouf and Gudnason disappear into their characters. The performance of LaBeouf is less surprising as I was thinking throughout that he was born to play McEnroe and it is a case of perfect casting. Only question mark with this was whether Metz could get the performance out of him before another one of his infamous meltdowns. The true revelation for me was the performance of Gudnason. Not familiar with his work before this film I was totally taken with the performance. Not only how much he looks like Borg, but the layers he adds to the character without much dialogue.
Even if you are not knowledgeable about or a fan of tennis this film will keep your attention because it is basically a character study. A close up picture of two men and how they dealt with their jobs and the men behind the public reputations. Also shows you how one man made the other.