Tuesday 26 September 2017

Film Review: Battle of the Sexes

It's Emma Stone versus Steve Carrell in Battle of the Sexes, a biopic which recounts rising female tennis star Billie Jean King's exhibition match-up against ageing chauvinist Bobby Riggs. 

Set in 1973, the film follows King's (Stone) attempts to garner equal pay; as the world female number one tennis player and a major draw, King believes the women of tennis should be afforded the same prize money as the men, butting heads with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), a major tournament organiser, as a result.

Meanwhile, a washed-up old star, Bobby Riggs (Carrell), chooses to get his life back on track by staging an exhibition match with King in an attempt to prove once and for all which of the sexes is better at tennis.

The great thing about Simon Beaufoy's (Little Miss Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire) script is that this central match really only serves as window dressing to a wider narrative – or series of narratives. Battle of the Sexes casts a much wider net than my brief synopsis would have you believe, tackling everything from homosexuality and fame to the politics of gender in sport. It's a tightly packaged screenplay that is able to derive a lot from its focused and compelling characters, most notably those played by Stone and Carrell but also a raft of supporting players.

Chief among these is Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn, an enigmatic hairdresser who catches the eye and captures the heart of Billie Jean. Their touching relationship balances out the crazy antics of Carrell, who gets some moments to get real but mainly spends the film mugging the camera and spouting sexist slurs.

The film does a good job of not letting this outdated angle drag it down; looking at it through a contemporary lens, Battle of the Sexes invites us to see just how much as changed (and how much has stayed the same), especially in the arena of same-sex marriage here in Australia. It is especially notable that Margaret Court (here played by Jessica McNamee) is lumbered with the role of villain given her very public stance against the ongoing same-sex marriage plebiscite.

Stone is barely recognisable as Billie Jean King, hiding behind a wig and unflattering frames – but her performance goes beyond the outfit as she so effortlessly is able to slip into the role of the successful but fiercely outspoken tennis star who is also shy and questioning herself sexually in private. It's a layered performance that Stone executes with aplomb, most in part because of this duality from King's public and private personas.

Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman and Alan Cumming all shine in bit parts, particularly Pullman as the 'neanderthal' events promoter who is steadfast in his belief that the male tennis stars should be paid eight times as much as the women simply because they are 'more exciting to watch'.

Whether its broad, crowd-pleasing tone and comedic nature make it a serious contender come Oscar season remains to be seen, but I found Battle of the Sexes to be an insightful and spirited time at the movies that demands to be seen on the strength of its performances and its sheer timeliness alone. The classic sports movie narrative is a little cheesy and predictable but this only serves to heighten the satisfaction delivered by the rousing finale.

The Verdict: 8/10

Stone and Carrell front an entertaining ensemble cast and script that serves up weight and whimsy in equal measure. Might not have the legs to contend for awards but Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining bout nonetheless.

Battle of the Sexes is in cinemas across Australia from this Thursday September 28.

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