Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Battle of the Sexes poster Rating: 6.9/10 (4,993 votes)
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales
Runtime: 121 min
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama
Released: 29 Sep 2017
Plot: The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.

In 1973, retired professional tennis player Bobby Riggs issued a challenge to the females of the tennis world that none of them could beat him in a match.  After Billie Jean King declined, he battled Margaret Court, the 30 year old current champion.  When Court proves to be unable to win against Riggs, King accepts the later challenge in a match that became known as The Battle of the Sexes.  This film explores the events surrounding that match, albeit with some dramatic tweaks to make the film more engaging.  Thus a lot of the focus is on the relationships of the two great players – Riggs with his gambling addiction threatening his marriage, King with her awakening attraction to Marilyn Barnett.

The film, ably directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – the same couple who gave us the charmingly comic Little Miss Sunshine, and Ruby Sparks – follows the usual staples of the ‘real life event to film’ adaptations.  Events shown on screen are not necessarily reflective of the actual events (King had begun her relationship with Barnett a good few years before 1973, and Barnett was not her hairdresser – although if she was, that name would be spot on), and are engineered to allow the film to follow the usual ‘up and downs’ of emotion that all sporting event films seem to have.  With the events of the actual matches already known, and the outcomes certain, the whole film would feel like just a typical formulaic, and un-noteworthy entry into this years line-up.

However, the cast lift the film significantly, and enable it to bypass the rather average nature to become something engaging and joyful – and none more than the two leads.  Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs has a chance to meld the antics we’ve seen him showcase so many time before with the acting he delivered in films such as Foxcatcher.  A semi-serious role, he shines throughout, whether we are seeing him at his lowest ebb, or showcasing his talents to a crowd with a theatrical flamboyance.  Carell plays Riggs as a sad clown, ever the showman on the surface but with insecurities that he doesn’t want to risk showing, turning what in effect is the villain of the piece into a sympathetic character who we, the audience, actually care for.  Emma Stone as Bille Jean King is almost the reverse of Carell.  Her insecurities are on the outside for all to see in her subdued appearance, all professional when it comes to the game, whilst on the inside she is determined and sure – at least at the start.  As the film progresses she starts to doubt herself, and seeing the cracks start to show is impactful, as she tries to juggle her complex personal life with her professional one.  Stone has certainly become one of the strongest talents of our time, and in this film she truly demonstrates her ability.  Her first encounter with Marilyn (played ably by Andrea Riseborough) as she gets her hair styled is full of pure, raw emotion, yet without anything more than casual exchanges of words and close up shots of their faces.  The skill in direction clearly helps draw our focus in, but it is Stone’s eyes that tell us all we need to know.  The same occurs throughout, where Stone manages to tell everything through her eyes, and it is impossible to not truly care for her character.

The surrounding cast are ably positioned, and are drawn from a great pull of names.  Bill Pullman as the chauvinistic Jack Kramer, Elisabeth Shue as Rigg’s wife, Priscilla, Natalie Rosales as Rosie Casals – all good casting choices, and all on fine form.  Alan Cumming steals a few select moments as Ted Tinling, the fashion designer and close friend of King, with a few witty ripostes.

Coming from Dayton and Faris you would expect some layer of wit to the proceedings, and the film doesn’t disappoint.  There are quite a few moments of mirth throughout, but without feeling out of place and forced – after all, this is supposed to be a real life drama, so anything too zany would just be wrong.  As mentioned before (when mentioning the haircut scene), the direction is great, and the directing pair, alongside Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, deliver a film that is pleasing on the eyes, and knows what to shoot and how to approach it for best impact.

What could have just felt like a TV movie of the week (and, indeed, the events were adapted into such in 2001) becomes something more thanks to the marvellous talent in front and behind the camera, making Battle of the Sexes a joyous watch, and one of the highlights of 2017.

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