Film Review: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining and competently made film. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have leaned upon the modern resonance of the film to engage with audiences.

Based on the well-known tennis match, Battle of the Sexes has a wider remit beyond this. Principally the film focuses upon Billie Jean King and her championing of equality, as well as her personal life. The secondary strand is that of her opponent Bobby Riggs. The film spends some time exploring his family life, and his personality. The emphasis is clearly on King however.

The story is told in an engaging manner, with momentum building to the famous match. The film functions as a partial biopic of the two main characters, focusing on their lives at the time of the event. The overriding theme is the struggle for equality. The arguments over women’s pay in tennis is something that continues to this day.

King is a fairly well-drawn protagonist. Although there is activity in her relationships, the film’s focus, like King herself, is on the sport. Battle of the Sexes emphasises the player’s determination, and the reason behind her motivation. This is made clear through a few brief conversations; Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are economical here with backstory, but this works overall.

A distinction is understandably drawn between the two players. King’s earnestness and hard work is set in contrast to Riggs’ braggadocio and relentless hustle. In some ways, King provides the heart and drama in the story, whilst Riggs provides the laughs. It is not quite as clear cut as this, however, as Riggs’ sensitive side gets a hearing.

Emma Stone delivers a strong performance as Billie Jean King. Steve Carell is larger than life as Riggs, and injects much needed energy into the film. Andrea Riseborough is a great chameleon, and is convincing as ever here. Sarah Silverman also stands out in a supporting role.

Battle of the Sexes highlights the achievements of Billie Jean King and others in the 1970s, but also how much further there is to go with regards to equality. The film is well made, but does not elevate beyond this.

Battle of the Sexes is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2017.

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