Review: Borg vs McEnroe

The 1980 Wimbledon Final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe is arguably the greatest game of tennis ever played. Therefore the decision to hinge all the drama on the notion the viewer won’t know the outcome of said match is bewildering and director Janus Metz’ film suffers greatly as a result.

How the tennis is presented was always going to be an inescapable issue for the film as BBC’s Wimbledon coverage has such a distinctive style. Wide court and crowd shots are juxtaposed with close ups of players and fans. When the rallies begin the camera sits behind the players capturing play in its entirety from start to finish. Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason through no fault of their own cannot reproduce the same level of tennis of Borg and McEnroe and the method of capturing the footage has to be different.

One singular, glossy shot of each point turns into a sea of rapid cuts and barely any of the action is seen. The tension that should have built up throughout the match, especially during the nail-biting 20 minute tiebreaker, is non-existent. A potential solution to this problem is to weave the actual footage from the game into the film but that too has its own stumbling blocks.

Away from the court writer Ronnie Sandahl tried to challenge the general perception of the two players being polar opposites. Borg, disciplined and collected and McEnroe, unpredictable and volatile. He uses an array of flashbacks to show how they are instead two sides of the same coin, that Borg as a child was equally as volatile but learnt to hold it in. This story arc takes up the majority of the non-tennis runtime but gets lost deeper and deeper within itself, he is perpetually a ‘volcano ready to erupt’.

With Metz constantly looking forward towards the final to generate tension, he fails to find ways to make it in the present, every scene is overly-dramatic regardless of its real meaning. Even moments as simple as a small talk conversation feature a grandiose score that swells as the conversation reaches a mild climax. That climax is always a question destined to remain unanswered for eternity.

The orchestral soundtrack as an individual collection of music is undoubtedly fantastic. Drawn from four different composers it would not look out of place in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. One scene in particular as Borg finally defeats McEnroe in the fifth set tiebreakers features marvellous strings that would evoke great emotion had the film created it. Likewise the cinematography Niels Thastum deserves plaudits for his work in making each scene visually resplendent.

The core vision was to produce a film that would stand shoulder to shoulder with not just great sports films like Moneyball but great films in general. Sadly the failure to presume the viewer already knew about the iconic match, the over reliance on flashbacks and the weak plot arc about them being the same on the inside created a disparity in quality between the expected and realised films.

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