Belfast Telegraph

Battle of the Sexes: Game is on for a perfect match in superb sporting drama

 

By Damon Smith

On a tennis court, love is all around before the first service point.

Husband and wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who made an auspicious debut in 2006 with Little Miss Sunshine, serve-and-volley a fine romance in their dramatisation of the televised 1973 match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which was billed as a showdown of youth versus experience as much as a battle of the sexes.

Scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy, who previously penned The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, elegantly navigates the personal lives of the two protagonists as he explores gender inequalities and sexual identity in the run up to the winner-takes-all contest at the Houston Astrodome in Texas.

The fractious face-off provides the film with a gripping conclusion, even if you know the eventual outcome, executed with pinpoint precision and slick digital effects.

It's a sophisticated, crowd-pleasing rally of heartache and triumph against adversity, underpinned by a universal messages of acceptance and respect.

Billie Jean (Emma Stone) and her ballsy manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are enraged when Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), one of the founders of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), announces the prize money for a forthcoming tournament, which is heavily weighted in favour of the male players.

In retaliation, King spearheads the creation of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), including her fiercest rival, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee).

The women-only tour gains in popularity and during one layover, Billie Jean meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

The spark of attraction is palpable, even though Billie Jean has an adoring husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell).

As Billie Jean agonises with her forbidden desires, former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) issues a bold challenge to any female player to face him on the court.

"I'm going to put the show back in chauvinism!" he proudly declares.

Battle Of The Sexes demonstrates a deft touch in lobbing moments of gentle humour into the characters' emotional upheaval.

Oscar winner Stone turns in a rich, textured and affecting performance that trumps her excellent work in La La Land as the ladies' standard bearer, who tumbles head over heels in love during arduous preparations for the grudge match.

Four stars

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