TL;DR – When it actually gets to the Battle it is a thrilling film, you just have to get through a lot of setup beforehand, a lot of setup, too much setup.
Score – 3 out of 5 stars
This is a really odd film, some aspects of it work amazingly, yet other parts fall flat, so it is both fascinating, yet also hard to recommend. Whatever the case, it was interesting to read up on this real-life event, this is because I was not born when it happened, and until this film came out I didn’t even know it existed. So today we are going to look at what did work and what didn’t of this both frustrating and yet also fascinating film.
So to set the scene, it is 1973 and tennis is going through a dramatic shift from the amateur to the professional player. In this space, we also had the rise of the Grand Slams as big draw crowds and the shift in the public’s view of tennis just being a stuffy sport played in country clubs. It is here that Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) exploded onto the tennis scene, quickly becoming the women’s world number one. It was during this transition time that Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) decided to change the prize pay-outs so that the women’s Grand Final prize was 1/12 less than the men’s, even though both Finals were crowd sellouts. So with the help of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), Billie sets up a competing tournament just for women. Also during this time, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) a former world number one is not settling quietly into his retirement from tennis, which is a bane of contention with his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). He wanted more of the spectacle that the sport was now getting, and he had a crazy idea of how to get it.
Now there are some issues with Battle of the Sexes, which we will get to, but there were also a number of facets of the film that was really fascinating. Also while this is a film based off real events, and so you can’t really spoil history, still there may be some [SPOILERS] ahead. The first is the characters, both Emma Stone and Steve Carell do an amazing job of giving these characters real personality and depth. This is especially important as this is a story that is based off real life and these are real people they are playing. So if it had been a shallow one-dimensional performance it would have been a disservice as both Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs who are fascinating and complex people. As well as this, the filmmakers do an excellent job of recreating the 1970s feels through the locations, props, even the hairstyles. Finally, the tennis, when we see, it was really well filmed, and really gives you the feeling of being there in that Astrodome. They use real footage, recreated footage, restaged scenes, and even insert modern actors into old news broadcasts like Forest Gump, or Deep Space Nine. This is such a strong supporting cast, and everyone is giving command performances, but of course, the standout is Stone and Carell, and they deserve the accolades they will get for throwing themselves into these performances.
Now while there are some really great aspects to Battle of the Sexes, there are also some problems and that is mostly with pacing and content priorities. Even though the title and most of the marketing is focused squarely on the ‘Battle of Sexes’ match, it is only the third act that really has anything to do with it. This means that there is a long slog to get through from the character setup until we are starting to focus on the build-up to the match. Now, this is not to say that there is nothing of interesting in the first and second acts, it is dealing with important themes of gender inequality, and outsiders place in the world. However, every plot point is just so predictable, I didn’t know the history, but even I saw each of the plot points coming a mile away. You have the adversary in Margret Court (Jessica McNamee) who is there to ruffle feathers and nothing else, you have the husband Larry (Austin Stowell) walking in unannounced, the lover Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) leaving then coming back just when Billie needed her, and so on. This means that most of the film is just a real trial to get through, and what should be a powerful insight into gender relations and power discrepancies, actually becomes quite dull. This is toped off with a film about tennis, not actually having all that much tennis in it, now this is by no means as bad as the travesty that was Ben-Hur (review) but it was noticeable. Now, none of these things are really deal breakers, however, it does detract from what could have been a powerful story.
So Battle of the Sexes is a film of two sides, powerful and boring, and that is a pity. However, the characters and setting are fascinating, the final act is amazing, and it might just be worth the slog to get through just to see that. In the end, do we recommend Battle of the Sexes, well call it a hard maybe, there is a lot of trash out there in the cinemas, so, on the one hand, this is a refreshing change of pace, but it might only be a must watch if you really like tennis, or Emma Stone delivering another Oscar-worthy performance.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Battle of the Sexes
Directed by – Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Written by – Simon Beaufoy
Based on – The life of Billie Jean King
Music by – Nicholas Britell
Cinematography by – Linus Sandgren
Edited by – Pamela Martin
Starring – Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Eric Christian Olsen, Lewis Pullman, Jessica McNamee, Martha MacIsaac, Wallace Langham, Mark Harelik, Fred Armisen, John C. McGinley & Chris Parnell
Rating – Australia: PG; Canada: PG; Germany: na; New Zealand: PG; United Kingdom: 12A; United States: PG-13