Fair Play tells the story of a recently engaged young couple Emily and Luke (Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich) who both work at a corporate hedge fund in secret. As they witness a fellow employee crash and burn and is let go of their job, a new spot for PM has opened up, leaving a possibility for one of the two; bringing their relationship in the brink of disaster.
Corporate, yuppie thrillers were a dime-a-dozen in the ‘90s. They were all about corruption, hedonism, backstabbing, thrill-seeking, power-playing stories that preyed upon the oppressors through the prism of greed. With examples over the years that this critic has liked including Arbitrage, Duplicity, Wall Street, Boiler Room, Disclosure and so on; the allure and cautionary factors of such narratives can still be successful as films. In the case of Fair Play, Chloe Domont (in her feature-length directorial debut), she has delivered an engaging and gripping thriller that succeeds mightily due to her deft handling of gender-centric themes of hypocrisies and biases within an escalating potboiler narrative that is sure to shock and provoke.
One of the smart decisions that Domont has done on her own screenplay is that she never explains the lingo and jargon of the workplace her characters inhabit, which not only ups the realism but also leads the audience to focus more on the interplay between the characters visually rather than verbally. While her dialogue may veer toward theatricality (Luke speaks of his position as being on the umbilical cord), she is also aware that audiences will already know the bias are between men and women in the workplace beforehand and does not always overexplain the dilemmas over them eg. How men feel like they have to be the saviours of women or how women have to lose themselves to thrive in a man’s world.
Another smart decision from Domont is that she withholds any backstory of her lead characters; leaving the audience to decide for themselves as to how they will interpret them. We see the characters rise and fall from their positions and trying to change the game. However, we have doubts as to whether they are doing it for their own self-interests or for each other; which lends the story some much-needed tension. The blocking and editing are also well-done, as Domont, editor Franklin Peterson and cinematographer Menno Mans block and edit the clash of the characters with clarity and visual keenness that keeps the tension burning. Special credit to Domont in highlighting sex as a temporary respite of the tensions her lead characters are in as refreshingly straightforward and sincere; instead of a joke or something to be put down.
But in the end, the film truly takes flight due to the fantastic lead performances from Dynevor and Ehrenreich. While her English accent occasionally slips at some points, she manages to make her character arc seamless as she portrays the vulnerability, tenacity and corruptibility of Emily with startlingly emotional vigour. Whether she is quivering over the possibility of losing the upper hand or showing off her swagger in making a great business decision, Dynevor delivers.
Ehrenreich manages to be believably enigmatic that it becomes to get a hold on his mindset. He capably shows cowardice and deviousness and yet there is a sliver of empathy behind it all that one can gauge it as either pathetic or downright serpentine. He truly shines when he internalizes his emotions and conveys them through his body language i.e. after a business failure that he was responsible for, his presence figuratively shrinks.
As for the supporting cast, all the (male) supporting cast are appropriately slimy that they leave a trail whenever they leave the sets. Special credit goes to Eddie Marsan, who exudes so much arrogance and hatred that he literally drools when exerting an insult on Emily in the second act.
Overall, Fair Play is an intense, gripping thriller from Chloe Domont. The interplay between Dynevor and Ehrenreich is sharp, the tension rises to a full boil and the politics (both office and sexual) are driven to breaking point. A true winner.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Fair Play is playing as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking place between January 19th and 29th, 2023, both in person and online. For more information head to the official Sundance page.