UK Release Date: 24th November 2017
Runtime: 121 minutes
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Austin Stowell, Elisabeth Shue, Jessica McNamee
Synopsis: The tale of the 1970s tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which was framed as a battle to prove women can play tennis as well as men.
With an outright misogynist in the White House and allegations of violence or abuse against women emerging out of Hollywood on an almost daily basis, films about gender issues have a particularly topical feel right now. The glossy drama Battle of the Sexes is an outright crowd pleaser of a movie, in which misogynism is put firmly in its place by women who are willing and able to prove their talents against men who question them.
Little Miss Sunshine directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have produced a film that is not only set in the 1970s – surrounding the tennis grudge match between women’s number one Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ageing former pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) – but also feels like it was made in the midst of that time period. Battle of the Sexes has a pleasingly old-fashioned feel, with authentic-looking cinematography and a methodical, deliberate pace. This has things moving slowly in the early stages, but pays off with the uplifting final, when things are settled out on court.
Stone and Carell are both tremendous in the leading roles. It’s the latter whose performance is the biggest, portraying the pantomime charisma of Riggs with goofy teeth and ridiculous sideburns, conveying every inch of the obnoxious chauvinism that Riggs made his persona in order to secure the big money match. The film does have the nous, though, to make it clear Carell’s views were mostly a comedy act. The true insidious sexism comes from Bill Pullman‘s sleazy tennis boss, who claims “it’s just biology” that means men warrant greater prize money.
Much of the movie’s heavy lifting falls to Stone, who portrays Billie Jean King as a complex woman struggling to manage the various facets of her life. She’s a champion on the court with a husband (Austin Stowell) who is understanding of her devotion to the game above all else. The film also explores her sexuality as she begins a tentative romance with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), which sees King almost afraid to embrace who she really is. Riseborough’s confidence is a real counterpoint to Stone’s uncertainty, though that uncertainty turns to steely determination when the chips are down and the final act arrives.
The issue with Battle of the Sexes is it almost gets caught between the disparate strands of its story. Its central conflict is nothing more than a tennis match, but the film pulls in issues of equal pay and the perception of sexuality, which don’t inform that event at all. King is certainly a trailblazing figure, but in trying to tell too much of her story in one go, Faris and Dayton have put together a slightly uneven and bloated film.
The lightness of touch shown in its more traditional sport movie moments doesn’t quite square with the equally interesting romance sequences, but it’s hard to care too much about that with the bright lights and tension of that final match, which is directed with a real sense of scale. Battle of the Sexes is not quite an ace, but it’s certainly a decent first serve with plenty of ideological topspin.
Pop or Poop?
Battle of the Sexes is an admirably light-footed look at the misogyny of the 1970s that never fails to gift its audience with a feminist response to every chauvinist quip. Emma Stone and Steve Carell deliver delightful central performances, with each given the chance to show more depth than you might expect.
Unfortunately, the script gets bogged down in its multiple story threads and loses a little focus, but this is certainly a story worth telling.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.