The directors of Little Miss Sunshine, a script from Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy, and starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. Thankfully Battle of the Sexes does not disappoint with such a high pedigree working on it. In fact it soars and might actually be one of 2017’s very best movies.
Centred around the famed tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Briggs, the former a feminist campaigning for women to be treated equally in the sport as their male counterparts, the latter a has-been looking for a way back into the game. The build up to their famed tennis match could almost be enough to sustain a compulsive film on its own, but Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s movie has so much more going for it than just a tennis match.
Coming on the heels of Borg vs McEnroe, it feels apt that two tennis match-themed biographies should come along at around the same time, but whereas Borg vs McEnroe is a very much a movie dealing with masculinity, Battle of the Sexes feels very much like its feminist equivalent.
While Carell’s portrayal of Bobby Briggs is pivotal throughout, and stays the right side of likeable despite some of the chauvinistic garbage he sprouts (probably down more to the fact that Carell has a likeable screen presence than the character himself), the film is very much centered on Emma Stone’s superb portrayal of Billie Jean King, a performance that deserves to net her another Oscar nomination. The film masterfully deals with her against-the-wall battles to bring equality to the sport she plays so well, but also with her own sexuality. Happily married to her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), Billie unfortunately has hidden who she really is, and finds herself drawn into having a relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).
Brilliantly the film paints their relationship beautifully, such as their holding hands in the elevator during a beautifully visual moment and Marilyn’s last act dash to Houston to be there for the match. The film really makes one root for these two throughout the running time, and Faris and Dayton’s staging of their gentle, tender romance is gorgeously realised through some lovely visuals and sensitive performances from Stone and Riseborough.
On its own the film has enough thematic material to deal with in regards to gender equality, but Billie’s relationship and her keeping it a secret adds another increasingly important layer, and one that is hammered home by a line of dialogue delivered by a Billie’s fashion designer Ted Kinling, a very warm and charming portryal by Alan Cumming, at the very end of the film that can’t help but bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye. Being a sports movie based around a key tennis match, it does build up to a final act centred around the match itself, a fantastic sequence that, even if you know how it ends, can’t help but grip like a vice, but the film brilliantly transcends being a sports movie into something more important, not to mention deeply relevant.
More brilliantly, the film, for all its important themes, has a light spring in its step that makes it such a compulsively brilliant watch. Opening with a 1970’s style version of the Fox Searchlight Logo, and looking like a movie shot at the time with it being shot on what looks like grainy 35mm film, the film is remarkably great fun even as it deals seriously with themes of LGBTQ rights and gender equality, and has room for moments that can’t help but make you smile, such as Fred Armison’s wonderfully bizarre manner of massaging Bobby’s arms during the final third of the movie during the match, not to mention the way the film cuts back and forward during the publicity drive for the match itself.
It’s a fantastic concoction of a film that soars highly and so brightly and is an absolute must-see. In a day and age when multiplexes and movie theatres are dominated by comic book heroes, sequels and remakes, it’s lovely that in this year alone there has still been room for smaller scale films such as this to sneak through the cracks and be massively entertaining while delivering important messages on tolerance and gender, even as the world conspires to fall apart around us and suppress these things into oblivion.
Battle of the Sexes is now on general release across the UK. Let us know what you think of it.