Despite its 1973 setting, Battle of the Sexes is very much a film for the now with Billie Jean King’s story appearing just as relevant today as it did back then. Stances on sexuality and the pay parity between genders as depicted here is likely to strike a chord with many an audience member, but as topical as Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris‘s film intends to be, it’s crowd-pleasing entertainment at the end of the day.
Following up her Oscar-winning turn in last year’s La La Land with a performance equally as impressive, Emma Stone creates a likeable heroine in tennis ace Billie Jean King, a player who never specifically courted icon status, but merely expressed what she felt her talents were due. And whilst now her sexuality is accepted, in the 1970’s she was struggling in coming to terms with it, and as much as she could be vocal about gender equality, her own sexuality was another matter all together, one she knew would ruin her career should it be public knowledge; Stone is suitably subtle in her delivery, never reducing Billie Jean to a stereotype during the moments she shares with Andrea Riseborough‘s Marilyn, the hairdresser that would awaken Billie Jean’s tendencies.
As much as Billie Jean’s own story could sustain the length of a feature, the titular battle between herself and self-proclaimed chauvinist tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is where the film hopes to get its mileage, and his brashness certainly makes for an amusing opponent. The film has no trouble painting Riggs as a sexist (though, arguably, Bill Pullman‘s head of the tennis professionals association is the really heavy-hitter in that department) but it’s his own relentlessness in self-promotion that really defines his character; his age (Riggs was 55 years of age against King’s 29-years) feeling like more of the driving force behind him challenging King to a tournament than her gender.
Despite some of the harsh dialogue and its commentary on how women were viewed in the eyes of men, the evident gambling addiction that was crippling Riggs’ marriage (Elizabeth Shue plays his long-suffering wife), and the suggested struggle to come for Billie Jean (Alan Cumming as a designer working for the women’s tennis team relays quite the timely message of how queer people will eventually move from the shadow society has shunned them into) Battle of the Sexes is still very much light in its tone. The soundtrack is plentiful with period-appropriate tunes, as well as some wonderfully recreated fashion, plus the feature itself is filmed in a 35mm-manner that makes it appear as a film from the era.
Stone and Carell are as delightful and reliable as one would expect, though as impressive as they both are in their respective roles, award-season glory doesn’t appear as guaranteed as one would expect. The film is effortless in its mainstream appeal however as it tackles a worthy subject without beating it over the head of its audience.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Battle of the Sexes is in cinemas nationally from 28th September 2017