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Film Review: Battle of the Sexes @ London Film Festival 2017


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In 1973 Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs went face to face for a tennis match which became the most watched televised sporting event of all time.

After winning the 1972 US Open, King is disgusted to find out that the United States Lawn Tennis Association are offering a new prize fund which is eight time less for women than it is for men.

Alongside her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) the pair recruit a group of women to form the Women’s Tennis Association in a protest and an attempt to create a more equal sporting environment for women.

Irritated by the independent-minded women, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), challenges King to a match to prove that men are inherently better players than women.

The premise for a film which revolves largely around issues of equality and the disparity between men and women seems to be perfectly timed for a release this year when these issues are more prevalent than ever.

But Battle of the Sexes fails to really hit home on those issues which could get female audiences riled up with passion and pride.

While Billie Jean King was not a political activist fighting for the universal equality of women, her head to head match with Riggs was a bold move as well as a physical and symbolic contribution to a wider movement.

So with such a powerful message attached to the motives of the match, why did Battle of the Sexes struggle to make this a cause that audiences could get behind for the two hour running time?

The film becomes about more than the wider issue of women’s rights and King kicking Riggs’ ass, as we see King explore her sexuality, with her husband still standing by her side while their marriage faced adversity, recognising that tennis is her one true love.

These aspects of the film are captivating and touching, especially the gentle and authentic relationship which blossoms between King and Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). But the amount of time dedicated to the development of these sub-plots just means that something about these aspects don't sit quite right in the overall themes and narrative of the film.

I wanted to see a film which really underlined King’s passion for women’s equality, but instead (and to be fair perhaps quite accurately), King is distracted by other matters, which means that the deep passion only really gets revealed in the final tennis match. While this may be accurate, it just doesn’t translate for an exciting watch.

Also, the everyday sexism portrayed in the film is just a bit much, with little subtlety but rather shock factor, with men claiming its “biology” and men are simply “more exciting to watch”. While their claims have certainly been uttered by numerous men, past and present, it seems to downplay the importance and undermine the reality of these kinds of beliefs which are still present today.

While the plot does seem to wonder and sag midway through the film, it has to be said that Emma Stone is fantastic in this role, both in look and acting she really nails her performance as Billie Jean King. Steve Carrell also performs exceptionally well, a genuinely disgusting character in his chauvinist, pompous attitude (but also eliciting a few laughs along the way).

The climax of the film, like any sporting film is where the real excitement lies. Filmed in the style a Wimbledon Tennis final would be filmed today, the temptation to jump in support as King as she gains points is tempting. This is the kind of energy the film needed all along. Something about the narrative structure and the focus on various subplots means that the majority of the film feels just okay. By no means a bad film, it just doesn’t have that something to keep the passion and excitement of the film's main issues flowing throughout.

Battle of the Sexes screened as part of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival this October. Further details can be found here.

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