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Posts Tagged ‘Janus Metz Pederson’

I know it’s not something to really be proud of, but I’m as prone to a touch of the old schadenfreude as the next person. Watching someone spectacularly torch their own career has a strange fascination to it, not to mention a peculiar and terrible beauty. Young movie stars are kept under pretty strict control these days, so they have to be quite determined to really do themselves some damage, career-wise – but someone who managed it was Shia LaBeouf, whose ill-chosen comments on the last Indiana Jones film, while admirably candid, apparently seriously ticked off Steven Spielberg. These days he’s not even allowed to be in the Transformers movies, a franchise so beyond the critical pale that not even I go to see them. A move into performance art has just been bemusing, more than anything else – last year he spent a whole weekend just going up and down in the lift in an office building round the corner from where I work, while a queue of admirers lined up to go up and down once with him. (He should have used the lift where I work: our building has twice as many floors, so everyone would have got a longer ride.)

And yet here he is, popping up in Janus Metz Pederson’s Borg vs McEnroe (the movie has a variety of other titles, depending on where you see it; we will return to this). This looks like being a bumper autumn for tennis-based historical drama, but apparently Borg vs McEnroe is struggling at the box office, rather: I can’t say I’m completely surprised. This movie reminds me very much of Ron Howard’s Rush (an account of a different sporting rivalry of yesterday), a rather fine film which did okay money-wise but was hardly a smash hit. This is a film much of which is in Swedish, without a really big star to carry it, or a big name director, and sheer quality just doesn’t guarantee success these days.

The film is set in 1980 and concerns the famous clash in the Wimbledon men’s final, between the Swedish player Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and the American John McEnroe (LaBeouf). Quite apart from the fact that the two men are both supremely gifted athletes, there is a clash of styles and personalities – Borg is renowned as an iceman, his game characterised by an almost robotic perfectionism, while McEnroe is a much more turbulent, provocative figure, famous for his explosive temper on court. Borg is loved by the crowds; McEnroe routinely booed.

Borg is campaigning for his fifth Wimbledon title on the spin; McEnroe is seeking to establish himself as a major figure in the sport. The pressures on both men are enormous – in private, Borg’s relationship with his coach (Stellan Skarsgard) and fiancee (Tuva Novotny) come under strain, while McEnroe’s fractious relationship with the media is another distraction. But as Wimbledon begins and the two men begin to battle their way through the draw, perhaps each of them sees a little of himself in the other…

I suspect that the one thing you really need to know in order to understand Borg vs McEnroe is the fact that this is a Scandinavian-financed film, known in Sweden simply as Borg. Bearing this in mind, it’s not exactly a surprise that the film is not completely even-handed in its treatment of its two principals. It’s not that McEnroe is smeared or disparaged in any way, more that the focus of the story is much more on the Swede than the American (the sense that this is the authorised biography of Borg only increases when you learn that playing the athlete as a youth is a lad by the name of Leo, ah, Borg – I wonder who his dad might be?).

The film has one of those slightly tricksy constructions where scenes from the ’present day’ of the film (i.e., 1980) are intercut with flashbacks to the youth of the characters – well, the extreme youth of the characters, given they are 24 and 21. There are many more of these for Borg than McEnroe, and – it seemed to me – more of an attempt at psychological insight and a fully-rounded characterisation. We see that McEnroe was clearly pushed to excel by extremely ambitious parents, but not really very much more – whereas in the case of Borg, we see in much more detail his troubled early years in the junior game, his discovery by Lennart Bergelin, and so on.

As a result, the film feels a bit unbalanced, and I have to say that the casting of LaBeouf is arguably a bit of a mistake that does not help matters much. We can skip over the fact he’s a decade older than McEnroe was at the time (the age disparity between Gudnason and Borg is even greater), but it still remains the case that there really isn’t much resemblance between the two of them. McEnroe was and remains a well-known public figure; at the time his various touchline rants at the umpire (’You cannot be serious,’ etc) were hugely famous, the raw material for dozens of jokes, cartoons, and even novelty pop songs. Everyone feels they already know John McEnroe already; bringing him successfully to life on screen would require a more nuanced and powerful performance than LaBeouf provides here. If nothing else, LaBeouf has the same problem that Tom Cruise suffers from these days – his peculiar behaviour away from the camera gets in the way of his work in front of it. He is known as a celebrity rather than an actor, and so when he appears he is only ever really Shia LaBeouf in a wig rather than any version of John McEnroe. (LaBeouf-watchers may be slightly alarmed to hear their man likening himself to the tennis player, saying he feels they are both ’misunderstood’. Hmmm.)

Anyway. I used to be very cool about sports-based movies, feeling that sport had no business muscling in on what’s supposed to be an art form. What I realise now, of course, is that both are in the business of storytelling, and the main appeal of sport is its potential to deliver a totally unpredictable narrative. The match at the end of Borg vs McEnroe is an unpredictable narrative to which the climax is already well-known, which presumably counts as a neatly-squared circle. Both the climax and the rest of the film are very competently assembled, even if the film’s ’inspired by true events’ style is hardly particularly innovative.

I’m just old enough to remember being vaguely aware of the events of this film when they happened, and I’m aware of the significance of the 1980 final. And the least you can say about Borg vs McEnroe is that it is a worthy, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful recreation of these events (it goes without saying, of course, that the 1981 encounter is dismissed in a single caption at the end). Not a perfect movie, but by no means a bad one, either: worth watching even if you’re only marginally a tennis fan.

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