‘Borg vs McEnroe’: The rivalry doesn’t quite grip

By Subhash K. Jha

Film: “Borg vs McEnroe”; Director: Janus Metz; Cast: Sverrir Gudanson, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard, Tuva Novotny and Robert Emms; Rating: **1/2

The best of intentions and impeccable casting do not compensate for a lack of vitality in this well-mounted, but finally unfulfilling true-life saga about the legendary rivalry on the field between the two tennis legends.

Director Janus Metz has cast well. Shia LaBeouf was born to play John McEnroe. He is everything that McEnroe should be — impetuous, hot-headed, impatient on the field and an enfant terrible, quite tangibly ‘Tennis, the Menace’ — and then some more. Very often, the distance between the actor and the role blurs here.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing in a biopic that purports to open two lives that played each other out in full public view.

It’s the Swedish actor Sverrir Gudanson as Bjorn Borg who really pins down the plot, and gives the film a bearing of intimidating intimacy. Because of Gudanson’s performance, many times I felt I was getting close to knowing the real Bjorn (whom I don’t know at all in any capacity), his frightening self-discipline and superstitious nature bordering on a psychotic attachment to order and neatness.

But then the narrative pulls back.

Sad to say we are never allowed to know either of the two tennis players beyond what is already in the public domain. Bjorn’s fits of ill temper are not for public consumption. John’s are. But in the film, we don’t get to know either. It’s almost as if the director willed an aloofness for his two protagonists. They come to us as intensely private people forced to live acutely public lives. Which is probably what the reality was. But as cinema, it simply sucks when you can’t get to know the heroes beyond their public image.

In that sense, this film is no different from the other notable sagas on the perils of stardom. What keeps us glued to the mounting tension of this sportive saga written into the raga of rivalry are the performances, not just the two protagonists, but also the distinguished Stellan Skarsgard as Bjorn’s lifelong coach and Tuva Novotny as his girlfriend.

Alas, Bjorn speaks only in Swedish to the people close to him, thereby creating another level of alienation with the audience. There should have been a lot more on the two tennis legends’ past. What we get are cursory scenes from their childhood and teens played out with a complete absence of warmth or tenderness.

McEnroe’s father, goading his little son to show his skills at mathematical numbers in front of dinner guests, and a teenaged Bjorn raging in the forest, just make us wonder why people who excel in life are allowed to get away with asocial behaviour.

This is a story that was waiting to be told. Now that it is here, we can only approach its unapproachable protagonists with a feeling of wistful yearning. If only the two protagonists were as expressive as the actors who play them.

The tennis played by Gudanson and LaBeouf is as good as Sushant Singh Rajput’s cricket in “M.S. Dhoni – The Untold Story”. But you don’t have to like tennis to watch this film. If you like the idea of two very accomplished actors struggling to give a relevance to their characters beyond the script, this is your movie date.

For a more comprehensive Bjorn/McEnroe biopic, please wait.

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