BATTLE OF THE SEXES gets 8/10 Court of the King

Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough

8/10

In 1973 former tennis star and part-time hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) challenged the woman’s champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) to an epic match with a winner takes all $100,000 pot. Pitched as The Battle of the Sexes, the match lead-up set King’s advocacy for equal representation of women in tennis, against Rigg’s chauvinistic showmanship.

This biographical comedy-drama sports film seems perfectly timed to capture the current political zeitgeist of the nation. Not only does  Battle of the Sexes explore the conflict behind King accepting her own sexuality, or regressive ideas being spewed by more conservative factions, but Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee) even appears to pour scorn on King. Talk about timing.

Equality, both for women and the Queer community, is front and centre here. The thrust is predominantly equal representation, couched in the terms of 70s feminism, which is to the forefront due to the female tennis player pay dispute and the way the Riggs/ King match was marketed. Yet due to the sub-plot of King embracing her sexuality, even if she is unable to come out of the closet it brings LGBT rights to play. We even get Alan Cummings as the openly gay Ted Tingling, acting as a camp Jiminy Cricket for King.

There is also a perfect sense of period in  Battle of the Sexes. Not only does it recreate the 70s in terms of décor and costuming, nor give us a close approximation to the match itself, but it also manages to imitate many conventions of cinema at the time. Visually its use of lighting and shot composition is strongly reminiscent of films of the era, but  Battle of the Sexes goes beyond this. In it’s slow concentration on that initial building and development of character, it seems more a film of another age, before Lucas and Spielberg brought the era of the Summer Blockbuster. Obviously it is still a modern film, but it does capture more than just the look, but rather the tone of the era.

With such an emphasis placed on character, obviously the principal actors have a lot of heavy lifting to do. Stone is almost effortless as King, burying herself in the role. There is a tentativeness, but also a real streak of steel about Stone’s portrayal. She comes off as unsure and insecure about her options, but resolute once she sets a course of action. By contrast Carell is full of brash bravado, a huckster, and a showman on display. His version of Riggs is one that is larger than life, that fills up a room when he enters it, but is also capable of having a more vulnerable side (kept well hidden, but occasionally on show here). As such he brings a level of sympathy for the character, even when he engages in outrageous stunts, or spews chauvinistic cliches.

Anchored by strong core performance (and well supported by a stellar cast)  Battle of the Sexes is an interesting window to the past, but is also one that feels current and relevant.

DAVID O’CONNELL

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