Borg-McEnroe film takes center court

Shia LaBeouf (McEnroe) in a scene from "Borg/McEnroe." Photo courtesy of TIFF

TORONTO: Though seldom a smash on the big screen, tennis took center court at the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday, opening with “Borg/McEnroe.” Starring Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg, the film is the opening volley in the 10-day festival, a premiere launching pad for the fall’s most anticipated films.

Tennis is getting perhaps its most serious film treatment at TIFF. The Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs showdown “Battle of the Sexes” will premiere here, as will the documentary “Love Means Zero,” about tennis coach Nick Bollettieri.

“Borg/McEnroe” focuses on the rivalry and 1980 Wimbledon finals between the tennis legends. It’s a Swedish production directed by a Dane, Janus Metz Pedersen.

The film depicts McEnroe and Borg not so much as opposites but similarly obsessive, driven athletes who channeled their all-consuming intensity in different ways.

“He used rage as a tactic to throw people off,” LaBeouf said of McEnroe. “He manufactured his intensity to hype himself up.”

LaBeouf may still not satisfy McEnroe. The actor isn’t left-handed, for one thing, but he’s already exceeded McEnroe in tantrum throwing. TIFF was LaBeouf’s first prominent appearance since his videotaped arrest for public drunkenness in July.

LaBeouf acknowledged feeling strong parallels with a combative, once-misunderstood McEnroe, who preferred to talk about tennis than about his behavior.

“It’s quite cathartic,” said LaBeouf, adding that if he elaborated, “I’d put my foot in my mouth.” The film, said the actor, “expresses something I feel deeply.”

While other sports (boxing, baseball) have seen countless big-screen tales, Hollywood has been reluctant to serve up tennis tales.

Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” featured a tennis star drafted into a devious murder plot. There’s Woody Allen’s Oscar-nominated “Match Point” and the 2004 romantic-comedy “Wimbledon.” Most memorable perhaps was Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which included a flashback of Luke Wilson’s tennis pro having a complete meltdown, committing 72 unforced errors and, mid-match, removing his shoes and socks.

“Borg/McEnroe” and “Battle of the Sexes” are the first major films to try to bring some of tennis’ big personalities to the screen. Hopes are higher for “Battle of the Sexes,” which stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, that film has already earned warm reviews and some Oscar buzz ahead of its TIFF debut, having played earlier in the week at the Telluride Film Festival.

“Borg/McEnroe” was greeted by mixed reviews, but Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the festival, said it captured the sport like never before. “What impressed me most about this film was how it made that clash [of opposites] cinematic,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 09, 2017, on page 12.




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