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Inside TIFF 2017: Game, Set, Match

Shia LaBeouf in Borg/McEnroe opens the festival.

If you’re too young to remember who won the 1980 Wimbledon battle royale between Swedish tennis superstar Björn Borg and American player John McEnroe, do yourself a favour and don’t look it up before watching director Janus Metz’s latest film. The tension built throughout makes the stunning finale worth the wait.

Borg/McEnroe was TIFF’s opening night gala presentation, a world premiere that Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director, noted in his opening remarks was the first time the festival had been opened by a Swedish film. An official pre-opening cocktail at the Ritz-Carlton Toronto kicked off the gala, complete with an on-site leather customization station by evening sponsor Coach, and the screening was attended by not only the film’s starry cast but also notables such as Toronto mayor John Tory, comedian Russell Peters, and wife of the late TIFF co-founder Bill Marshall, Niagara Integrated Film Festival founder Sari Ruda, who delivered a speech in his honour.

The film itself rolls back the clock almost 40 years to a time of sweat bands, track suits, and Puma trainers sported by Shia LaBeouf, who plays black sheep McEnroe, a gifted but belligerent tennis player who throws fits on the court and swears at the crowds, and Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason, who is stoic golden boy Björn Borg. With movie-star good looks, legions of fans, and a seemingly robotic control of his emotions, Borg is by far the favoured player but time reveals his cracks, too. (A flashback shows his coach, Lennart Bergelin—played by a searing Stellan Skarsgård—asking him to “lock [his] emotions in a pressure cooker. Show nothing, but then channel it into every shot.”) On the opposite spectrum is Shia LaBeouf’s oddball McEnroe, to whom similarities can be drawn with the actor’s real life rebellious persona, but the focus should be on the radiant performance: viewers are left craving LaBeouf when he’s off-screen.

True tennis fans may be thrown off by the artsy camera angles, which can be difficult to follow at times though languorous and beautiful—think panning overhead shots of players doing the tennis dance on a red dirt court—but this is a rivalry worth watching despite the fact that some poignancy is lost during the odd scene that errs on the side of a Hallmark moment. Like any stellar tennis match, the film’s ending is a cathartic rush with some added plots twists, too.

At Borg/McEnroe’s beginning an Andre Agassi quote splashes across the screen; the sentiment echoes through until the film’s close: “It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.”

Photos courtesy of TIFF.


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