Tennis drama Battle of the Sexes is a retelling of Billie Jean King’s famous titular match against Bobby Riggs in 1973. It’s also an exploration of the off-court issues of chauvinism, inequality and prejudice which enveloped the high profile encounter.
Ably handled with humour, tenderness and sincerity by the directorial doubles pairing of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and in light of certain comments made last year by the now leader of the Free World about where a woman may be grabbed, Battle of the Sexes retains a striking relevance for ongoing gender disparity and sexual bigotry. The script – by Yorkshireman Simon Beaufoy, whose credits include The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours – is dryly funny throughout but equally achieves necessary nuances of bitterness without ever dipping into over-sentimentality.
This restrained lack of door slamming and grandstanding is refreshing to some degree but does temper the film’s overall emotional resonance. In its determined direction – which comes to parallel the resolute personality of its protagonist – there is also little doubt as to the trajectory we will take but moving through the points until game, set and match is nonetheless an enjoyable and enriching experience. Stone once again really impresses here and should be commended for leading from the front.
Her turn blends feistiness and perseverance – principally in the face of the sexism of Bill Pullman’s LTA chief Jack Kramer – and a timid fragility, which manifests itself through her wonderfully expressive eyes upon meeting hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) for the first time. This shy encounter, upon King’s departure for a tour with her newly-formed band of merry lady tennis stars, allows her true sexuality to slowly blossom. Marilyn, far more comfortable in her own skin, stays out of the spotlight, finding herself in a no-womans-land between her new beloved and Billie Jean’s husband, Larry (Austin Stowell).
An unspoken realisation of infidelity is handled with particular grace by the actor in one of a number of touching moments which are played very well. Elsewhere, the aforementioned humour comes in large part from Steve Carell who plays the buffoonish Riggs with real gusto. His clowning around, ridiculous gambling habit, childish interaction with his young son and faux chauvinism to drum up publicity for the big match bring hearty and consistent laughs. But for all his bravado there is a desperate sadness to a man losing his youth, family and sense of purpose in the world and Carell wears this insecurity on his sleeve.
Approaching the main event, it is clear that the stakes at hand for all involved are far more serious than just a game. As well as advocating for equal pay and women’s rights, King saw her gift as a means to advocate opening up the sport of tennis to all across America, not just stuffy country club types. And Dayton and Faris have equally made Battle of the Sexes a very accessible film whose crowd-pleasing spirit should not disguise the lessons it makes to be learned.