Film Review: Battle of the Sexes

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From the directors of Little Miss Sunshine comes a taut sporting drama with a political edge, writes Natalie Stendall.

Battle Of The Sexes focuses on the momentous 1973 tennis match between world number one Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and 55 year old former champion and self-confessed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).

Plugged by Riggs as a chance to prove that women don’t belong on the court, beating him offers the potential to upend the nation’s hostility to women’s liberation. Having already been exiled from the American Lawn Tennis Association as a result of their campaign for equal pay, the female tennis players realise just how much is at stake.

From the writer of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, Simon Beaufoy, Battle Of The Sexes is brilliantly paced, each slight on the female tennis players building towards an overwhelming avalanche of jeopardy.

Riggs’s ludicrous public circus is the touchpaper to a parade of popular misogyny - the crowd is packed with men sporting ‘male chauvinist pig’ t-shirts with pride - that would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.

And yet, as a former champion exploiting the contentious issue to relaunch his own waning career, Riggs is hardly the chief villain.

Steve Carell imbues the role with frequently hilarious dark humour and gaping vulnerability, expertly swerving pantomime territory. The personal relationships fuelling the film’s subplots are its heart and soul.

Emma Stone makes a worthy play for a third Oscar nomination as the poised and gutsy Billie Jean King. Stone’s King is determined and focussed but she’s also visibly shaken by a burgeoning relationship with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris capture a beautifully intimate first encounter between the women with unrelenting close-ups and sensual details. The cinematography from Linus Sandgren (La La Land, American Hustle) is imbued with warm, amber 70s tones. It’s gorgeous and nostalgic and provocatively at odds with the oppressive reality of 70s misogyny and homophobia.

By looking back at the cult of male-chauvinism a mere 44 years agp, Battle Of The Sexes exposes the fragility of women’s liberation. The closing text is a rare misstep in this coherent and engrossing socio-political commentary. That it focusses on the personal lives of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, rather than their impact on society, sport and equal pay, is remiss.

4/5

Battle Of The Sexes is showing at Nottingham Broadway until Thursday, December 14