Directors: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman and Bill Pullman
Review written by: Michael Dalton, Prime Minister
Battle of the Sexes has such rich subject matter, it's surprising that it took this long to be made into a film. I must admit, being a twenty-two year old from the UK, I didn't know much about this match before seeing the film. While I'm sure an extra degree of appreciation would come from having such knowledge, watching the film without knowing exactly how it was going to turn out made for incredibly compelling viewing. This is a testament to the approach of directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who deliver a film that satisfies as a sports movie, relationship drama and historical document.
Tennis matches have always been difficult to translate to the big screen, with actors unable to match the intensity or pace of the pros, and while the match itself is somewhat less interesting than everything else going on around it, Faris and Dayton do create a lot of tension. However, their greater exploits come from the handling of both the period detail and personal relationships.
The film marks an interesting contrast to Breathe, which was the opening night film at the London Film Festival. I thought that film failed to delve deeper into Robin Cavendish’s personal life, or to convey the broader importance of his actions. However, Battle of the Sexes provides both an intimate account of who Billie Jean King is, and how her actions changed the world around her.
On the personal level, Billie Jean King's sexuality is portrayed with a sensitivity and progressiveness. While there are moments of contrivance in how the 'love triangle' of sorts is handled between Billie Jean, her husband and hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, the dynamic between the three (or four if you count Billie Jean's first love of tennis) makes for an emotionally complex relationship drama, which could have been a compelling film in its own right.
Central to this dynamic is the hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough. Seeing Andrea Riseborough talk to us before the film accentuated the strength of her performance. If you didn’t know, you’d be convinced she was an American actress and not from Newcastle upon Tyne. Having delivered terrific, and chameleonic, supporting performances for years now, hopefully this film brings her the credit she deserves.
On the other side of the court, Steve Carell provides much of the film's humour through his performance as Bobby Riggs. However, the film's portrayal of his gambling addiction is its one big misstep. Speaking before the film, Elizabeth Shue said how her character of Lornie Kuhle, Bobby’s husband, prevented the handling of Bobby Riggs from being one-dimensional, as it gave you a picture of his troubled personal life. I have to disagree, as too often that aspect of his life was used as a punch line rather than a source of drama. While this is very much Billie Jean's story, the filmmakers purport to give a more nuanced picture of Bobby Riggs than his public persona, however, for the most part, it is still very much a one-note portrayal and an opportunity missed.
Overall, Battle of the Sexes is absorbing and satisfying viewing. As a sports movie it works, however it also succeeds as a relationship drama and a piece of social history. Faris and Dayton’s direction provides both scope and sensitivity, whilst Emma Stone gives the performance of an actress at the top of her game.
Movie Parliament Rating: MAJORITY GOVERNMENT