Thursday, 18 January 2018

Battle Of The Sexes ★★★★☆

I’m not a fan of sports. I don’t play it, I don’t watch it. Never have. I’m not anti-sport – I won’t slag it off or label it ‘pointless’, but it does not remotely appeal to me. The closest I’ll get to sport is in the cinema, and even then, I go in with reservations. But more and more sports movies are becoming accessible to people who don’t follow the subject, and in instances like Battle of the Sexes, it becomes almost irrelevant as the narrative progresses. Without sounding like a cliché, the titular Battle here isn’t played on the tennis court. It’s played on a far deeper level.

In 1973, top o’ the world tennis player Billie Jean King and ex-champ and hustler Bobby Riggs made sporting history. As the title of the match (and film) suggests, this match was far more than “who is the best athlete” – it became man vs. woman. This came in a time of enormous gender inequality – King was particularly perturbed that male players were paid 8 times more than females. And while times are still nowhere near perfect for women, King did help broker a more accepting world with her victory against the self-proclaimed ‘chauvinist pig’ Riggs.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the couple behind charming indie flicks Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, bring this iconic tale to life with great panache. Dazzlingly era authentic in its colour palette, costume and hair, this film could’ve easily been shot in the 1970s – reinforced by the use of the decade’s company logos as the film begins. The soundtrack helps too; Elton John, Tommy James & The Shondells and George Harrison all make sonic appearances that turn the film into a 70s-bound time machine. 

But a film based around an iconic rivalry will always live or die based entirely on the strength of its performers. Thankfully, Battle of the Sexes boasts two of the finest performances of the year. Emma Stone is incredible as King, with her character arc giving the title several meanings. It is King’s battle off-court that gives the film the most of its emotional moments – because also during this time, King learned that she was infact a lesbian. Her struggle with her feelings for hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) may be a bit heavy-handed at times, but do create some powerful scenes. While the majority of critical attention has been thrown at Stone and her uncanny performance as the feminist legend, it is the always-brilliant Steve Carell who absolutely steals the show. 

After amazing audiences over the past few years with his transformative role in Foxcatcher and great supporting work in The Big Short and Café Society, Carell is unstoppable at the moment. Earning another Golden Globe nomination for his work here, Carell stops Riggs from becoming a parody – instead of being a panto villain, Riggs is almost sympathetic. We see the heart behind this broken man, thanks also to Simon Beaufoy’s poignant screenplay. From some gentle and touching scenes with Riggs, we learn that he is all talk, and his controversial statements about women are bigged up for the camera. You have to remember that he was a hustler – and making this match a real event meant he could ‘make deals on his deals’ with sponsorships and advertising. He had to be the villain that people would hate – or get behind – and turn the match into an enormous event.

The 1973 match was a cultural phenomenon; historic for gender equality, and proof of the power of sport to be relevant and meaningful. While the film will never be as iconic as the titular battle itself, it is an enormously entertaining tale, spectacularly well told. Amazing performances across the board mean a weak link is hard to find, the direction and writing is spot-on, and the film’s 70s style is masterfully handled.

I went into Battle of the Sexes with little hope. Despite being a fan of the leads, I didn’t think a story based around tennis could entertain me. However, I was pleasantly surprised and entertained throughout. Game, set and match. Battle of the Sexes is a must-see!

Sam Love

Battle Of The Sexes at CeX

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