Serving well-rounded feminist statements while expertly juggling three intertwining stories, Battle of the Sexes is an outwardly reaching argument encapsulated in a tennis match.
Ace in the Holeby Gus Edgar
Battle of the Sexes
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The *other* tennis movie released this year, Battle of the Sexes is less personal and more ambitious than Borg vs McEnroe,honing in on the politics rather than the player. It’s a retelling of the infamous showdown (emphasis on ‘show’) between ‘male chauvinist pig’ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), and ‘hairy-legged feminist’ Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) that took place in the 70s – a groovy high-flying landscape or an unjust wasteland, depending on your gender. Perhaps not so surprisingly, it is also a film that feels more current than ever.
The title holds nothing back: this is a film deeply invested in gender politics. As such, it has a tricky path to navigate in forcing its message without coming across as preachy or overly sentimental. There’s nothing subtle about its agenda – most of the men spout senseless, sexist remarks, and Billie Jean receives the lion’s share of the screen time. Why shouldn’t the feminist message be pushed? In a world where unequal pay in sports across genders remains, this is a rallying cry to urge greater strides towards equality.
Yet its analysis of the wage divide is fair, too. Its slant is one-sided, but not to the point where a film becomes a lecture, and its director a lecturer. Reasons are provided for the result of the match that don’t necessarily abide with its politics, and thank god for that – amid the warm colour palette and swooning score, Battle of the Sexes stays in touch with reality.
While the titular tennis match forms the crux of the narrative, Battle of the Sexes cleverly juggles two more, intertwining stories. Billie Jean King was as much an advocate for women’s rights as she was for LGBT rights, and her lesbian relationship with a hair stylist is given the time it needs to stake its importance. It’s well-handled, and Billie Jean’s husband is sensibly depicted as a sympathetic character, when a blunter approach could have swerved Battle of the Sexes into unwanted melodrama. There’s another storyline, too, that takes up much of the first act – Sarah Silverman and Emma Stone organise a renegade women’s tournament as a rebellion against the unfair prize money the women receive in comparison to the men. Inevitably, the film can’t manage all three storylines at once, and so this subplot falls to the wayside. It’s also the storyline inclusive of Battle of the Sexes’ most egregious character: Jean’s rival, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who’s both underused and villainised to the point of no return.
In fact, she’s as much as an antagonist as Bobby Riggs himself, whose character has the potential to flounder, but is instead well-rounded and easy to understand and empathise with. He’s certainly written and performed as a cartoon character, but a self-aware one, with less of an interest in gender politics and more of an interest in gambling. Steve Carell plays him for laughs – he’s an excellent, larger-than-life, character – but there’s no suggestion that Riggs truly believes in the chauvinist remarks that are spilling from his lips. Indeed, he may not be sexist at all – just hungry for dollars.
Well-judged, narratively stable, and expertly acted, Battle of the Sexes is, to much relief, a delight both on the court and off, delivering its feminist sentiments with aplomb while avoidin potential pitfalls of redundancy and worthiness.
Battle of the Sexes screens on 7, 9 and 14 October 2017 in the 61st BFI London Film Festival.