There are few feelings more fulfilling than watching a movie that unexpectedly stuns and entertains you. We go into so many films assuming this or that about them, but when a movie defies all expectation and delivers something remarkable or unforeseen, you really feel that this is why the cinema is such a place of wonder. In a year that already gave us Borg vs. McEnroe, this new tennis-based film looks back at a moment that sent reverberations throughout the sport’s history and instituted a social change. Battle of the Sexes looks back at the – now iconic – huge 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and in doing so offers a film that is thrillingly timely and yet perfectly evocative of its era.
From Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, this film is a bio-sports drama but is as taken with its subjects off court as it is on. Delving into King’s personality and sexuality, as well as Riggs’ psyche, this is a rounded character drama that offers laughs, poignancy and themes of LGBT and gender issues that are as prevalent now as ever. Starting with the successful King and her defiant stance against the unfair gender divided pay in the sport, this film slowly but confidently builds up to its central conflict and in doing so reveals a whole lot about this era (and our own) and the importance of this historic event.
Like Ron Howard’s sublime Frost/Nixon (a film which Battle of the Sexes reminded me of a lot), this is about far more than its title confrontation; it is sympathetic, charismatic and a rather inspiring tale of triumph and identity. Written by Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy, Battle of the Sexes has a script drenched in powerful sequences and characters, and Beaufoy’s telling of this story heightens the stakes but not at the expense of the heart or humour. The dialogue is punchy, the match itself is exhilaratingly rendered and while some of the ideology may be a tad on the nose for some, what it lacks in nuance it makes up for in big screen passion. Never does this feel to overdo its subject’s struggles or gloss up its sexual politics for superficial effect, it feels honest, it feels powerful and it feels like a true life tale brought to the screen by filmmakers that love the story being told.
This is certainly Emma Stone’s show and as Billie Jean King, she is scarily good, capturing the real life figure’s strength and struggle in a performance so magnificent I would say it is her best since Birdman. She immerses herself in the part and becomes King, you can practically see the fires of rage in her spectacled eyes when she witnesses the injustice and belittlement of her gender in the sport she loves. Surely she should be guaranteed an Oscar nomination, despite the film’s questionable release at the festive end of a year, pre-The Last Jedi and pre-awards season year. Also awards worthy is Steve Carell, who as self proclaimed ‘chauvinist’ showman sportstar Bobby Riggs is a mix of funny, infuriating, flawed and afflicted. The film digs beneath his camera catching bravado to reveal a figure impossibly hooked on risk taking and once again, this is a turn that shows the Anchorman star is way more than a one trick pony, he is a skilled and incredible actor.
The way the film challenges your allegiances to its characters by looking at things with humanity and respect is wholly satisfying and while the headline mixed double may be showstealing, the supporting cast hit some amazing shots also. Sarah Silverman is hilarious as Gladys Heldman, while Bill Pullman is oily as exec Jack Kramer and Andrea Riseborough is compelling as Jean’s hairdresser Marilyn (a figure central to the personal facets of the narrative and King as a character). Although one performance that really stood out for me was Alan Cumming’s turn as fashion designer Ted Tinling, in a role that really voices the movie’s messages of self-confidence and the importance of equality.
Overall, with its snazzy soundtrack, impressive American Hustle-esque visual representation of the era and performances that are near perfect in capturing the people they are presenting (the closing real photos show just how close this film is to replication), this is a remarkably cool treat. A treat that hopefully will inform more of King, her accomplishments and why her battles personally and professionally were so important for so many people. Battle of the Sexes is rewarding for fans of the event itself and for people who – in this barmy and angry modern world – forget that we have come a long way baby…and it ain’t over yet!
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