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Battle of the Sexes (2017)- BFI London Film Festival 2017



Genre:     Fact-based, Comedy, Drama

Director:  Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Cast:       Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough…and more

Writer:    Simon Beaufoy


A light-hearted story of the struggle for equal rights in professional tennis, set against the backdrop of the media circus surrounding the exhibition match between legendary women’s world number one Billie Jean King and retired male pro and flamboyant hustler Bobby Riggs in 1973.

With their 2006 Oscar-winning feature debut ‘Little Miss Sunshine’—after a long career making shorts and music videos for the likes of Janet Jackson and Red Hot Chili Peppers—directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have established a talent for idiosyncratic character comedy/drama, expertly blending hilarious quirkiness and farce with poignancy and self-reflection. Now in the midst of female empowerment and the wave of equality sweeping through the industry, the California directors team up with Oscar-winning British writer Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) for a period tale and slice of Hollywood social commentary about a bygone era—but aimed squarely at a very modern one.

Emma Stone stars as world number one and future tennis legend Billie Jean King at the peak of her playing powers, fighting to stay on top and struggling with her marriage when a new friendship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) raises questions about her sexuality in a less than understanding time—all while butting heads with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and the all-male brass of the US Tennis Association, in a fight to close the huge pay gap between the male and female tour. Enter 55-year-old former men’s champion turned pencil-pusher, part-time hustler and ‘chauvinist-for-show’ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who goads King into a highly-hyped and lucrative gender showdown, capturing the public’s imagination and raising the status of the game in America, while helping to shape the future of women’s professional sport worldwide.

‘Battle of the Sexes’ is by no means a thorough character study on Billie Jean King or an in-depth look into the mind of a champion, nor is this a particularly insightful assessment of gender politics in America or a considered glimpse into the notion of equal pay and recognition in sport—a debate which is neither settled nor black & white.

Instead Dayton and Faris craft a breezy but eye-opening crowd-pleaser with a healthy comedy/drama balance and a clear message, using a single moment in history—where the struggle for equality was etched into the public’s consciousness—to deliver a wider story about female empowerment. Yet the film nobly resists the urge to come-off like a feminist rallying cry to take everything you can get, but rather echoes the sober and passionate sentiment which King herself delivers in the film—that women just want a piece of what men have always had . . . and take for granted.

For a relatively small studio picture from Fox Searchlight, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ spares no expense in stylishly recreating the early 1970s, boasting top-notch production designs to place you in the era and dressing the actors in meticulously crafted on and off court threads which really take you back, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, La La Land) colourfully framing it all—someone with Oscar-winning experience in capturing Emma Stone’s screen luminescence. The circle of mood, time and style is completed by a score from Nicholas Britell (The Big Short, Moonlight) and a soundtrack of very recognisable tunes from the era.

Fresh from her Oscar glory, Emma Stone delivers another accomplished performance and holds the film together with charisma alone, bearing more than a toothy-smile passing resemblance to King but not resorting to imitation, ably capturing the inner struggle of an athlete at her zenith—reluctantly risking her reputation with a loss to an out-of-shape 55-year-old former pro, for the chance to hit a winning volley for equality while raising the global profile of the women’s game. Steve Carell meanwhile steals the show and is responsible for several of the film’s many belly-laughs as the misunderstood consummate showman Riggs, portraying him as a loveable rogue and compulsive gambler struggling to accept his twilight years away from the limelight as a fan favourite—engineering this entire sideshow spectacle by any means necessary.

‘Battle of the Sexes‘ certainly isn’t the most well-balanced, touching or delightful comedy-drama you’re likely to see, overstuffing its two-hour runtime with multiple social themes, character development and light entertainment on the way to the big centrepiece finale indicated by the film’s title—all of which results in an oversimplification of King’s own sexual orientation, relationships and a complex marriage, not to mention a far too neatly packaged and simplified view of the long struggle for gender equality . . . in sport and society in general.

Yet this stylish and charming light period piece does manage to deliver a strong general message about female empowerment while paying tribute to the people and the event which shaped this struggle for a generation, but remaining honest about the media sideshow that was the match itself . . . albeit a necessary one. Most importantly though, this little tinseltown ‘history’ lesson is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining affair throughout, thanks to the charisma of its two stars and the cinematic craftsmanship which help them shine. A fitting Hollywood tribute to the few people and the one woman who helped to revolutionise women’s tennis, paving the way for all the future stars who would become greats of the game while transcending the sport—all while creating a legacy for women’s professional sport in general.

The Bottom Line…

A colourfully crafted 70s period piece with a strong (albeit broad) social message and plenty of character, the latest comedy/drama from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is an often hilarious and occasionally poignant tribute to a media circus event and an extraordinary champion of female empowerment—whose legacy in nothing short of revolutionising the role of women in professional sport.


‘Battle of the Sexes’ is out on the 24th of November in the UK, and out now in the US.

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