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Battle of the Sexes - Review

Battle of the Sexes

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

SEXUAL inequality and social acceptance serve the basis for jovial real-life comedy-drama Battle of the Sexes, which for all of its retro elements remains a timely piece of work.

The title of the film takes its name from the 1972 tennis match between then World No1 women’s player Billie Jean King and former No.1 men’s player Bobby Riggs, which was devised by charismatic misogynist Riggs to conclusively prove that men were better than women on the court.

For King, who reluctantly agreed to the match knowing its implications, the stakes couldn’t be higher. A staunch advocate for equal pay for men and women, King was in the midst of setting up her own Women’s Tennis Association in protest at the US Lawn Tennis Association’s decision to set up another tournament where men received eight times more prize money than women.

At the same time, she was also coming to terms with her own sexuality. For despite being married to Larry King, she found herself attracted to her hairdresser – a relationship that would have been frowned upon at the time.

Riggs, meanwhile, was attempting to overcome a gambling addiction that was placing his marriage in jeopardy, while viewing the match as a comeback of sorts.

If trailers for Battle of the Sexes suggest a frothy, lightweight comedy that’s more content to have fun than confront big issues, then it’s a pleasant surprise to find that the film also packs a surprisingly effective emotional punch.

But then it’s in good hands. As they showed with Little Miss Sunshine, co-directors directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Deyton are deft hands at balancing rousing underdog elements with weighty dramatic material.

Here, King’s journey is particularly sensitively handled, especially when focusing on her sexuality. Emma Stone plays King with outward conviction but inner vulnerability – a woman who was all too aware of the minefield she was navigating in juggling her battle for equality with a tumultuous personal life.

Her relationship with both Marilyn, her hairdresser, and Larry, her husband (played, respectively and brilliantly by Andrea Riseborough and Austin Stowell), is shot through with an authenticity that refuses to betray the emotions at play – be they hurt, anxiety or desire.

While her steadfast refusal to be intimidated by the chauvinism that defined the era (and which is personified by Bill Pullman’s influential Jack Kramer) is, by turns, bullish and inspiring. You can expect her to feature prominently in this season’s awards talk given how much of the film’s dramatic weight she is asked to shoulder.

Carell, though, is just as good, even if he appears to be playing the buffoon for most of the time. In lesser hands, Riggs could have been an annoying, even odious presence (he was there to put the show in chauvinism after all!), but Carell imbues him with a harmless likeability – a clown crying on the inside, all too aware of his own faltering legacy. Scenes between Riggs and his wife (an excellent Elisabeth Shue) are particularly effective.

Faris and Deyton also deserve praise for retaining a good sense of balance, as does Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay, for this could easily have felt heavy-handed or mis-judged.

Instead, it offers audiences a genuinely good time but one that isn’t afraid to confront the issues of the day in a way that resonates still. The pay divide between men and women still exists and – given recent headlines from Hollywood and beyond – sexist/chauvinist attitudes still prevail, albeit with signs of change.

Battle of the Sexes shows how those seeds of change were sewn. As such, it’s game, set and match to female empowerment that deserves to be a smash hit with audiences.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 1min
UK Release Date: November 24, 2017