A sexist male hustler challenges a talented female star of her field to a match, which is built up in the media and turned into a circus. Sound familiar? And it has the right outcome this time. Battle of the Sexes has a degree of wish fulfilment to it that a weary 2017 audience should find much comfort from. Coupled with a tasteful exploration of gender politics, it is a film with a surprising amount of emotional heft.
The film focuses on 1973 tennis match between the World number one at the time, Billie Jean King, who was at the forefront of the fight for equality in the sport, and the former champion and self-styled chauvinist pig, Bobby Riggs. Battle of the Sexes explores the reasons each would undertake such a novel match.
Here is a film immeasurably aided by a fabulous cast, headlined by this year’s Best Actress Oscar winner, Emma Stone. She is great as Billie Jean King, bringing the same warmth she has had in previous films, as well as elevating the more serious moments. Steve Carrell is fun as Bobby Riggs, even if he can’t find a route in to make the character even slightly likeable. Andrea Risborough as King’s lover, Sarah Silverman as her agent, and Alan Cumming as the tennis tours’ designer all have their fair share of laughs, as well as managing the dramatic heft when the film requires it. And it has to be said that Bill Pullman plays a misogynist dinosaur oh so well.
The gender politics of the era play out in the life of King, her sexuality explored in one of the film’s better strands. In fact such is the strength of her story that you wish the film didn’t keep cutting away to Bobby Riggs. Yes, gambling addiction and marital issues are serious themes to explore but he is just a fundamentally unlovable character, trading too heavily on the accepted sexism of the time. When King is such an interesting person, played by an exceedingly good actress, why not keep the focus there?
It is a misstep for a film that manages to successfully juggle the other pieces of narrative. Director Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bring the lightness of touch they so skilfully showed in their previous films, Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, while expanding their scope from the small and personal to a much bigger narrative focus, based as it is on a real event in popular culture. The production design is particularly good, successfully recreating the era, particularly important given how important hairdressing is to the film (I shan’t reveal more).
Battle of the Sexes follows a successful line of award contenders (Hidden Figures, Philomena, Lion) in taking a real life story and constructing an audience friendly film, as well as exploring a worthwhile theme. It is almost enough to ignore the sexist pig that makes up some of the narrative. The lesson learned: always trust in Emma Stone.
This is a London Film Festival preview and Battle of the Sexes will be released on Friday 24th November.