Battle of the Sexes

I think that tennis hasn’t been particularly well served (pun very much intended) on the big screen. Recently, we’ve had Borg/McEnroe but sadly that passed me by, other than that the most notable examples are Wimbledon, which is a guilty pleasure of mine, and Match Point. The real question here is does Battle of the Sexes serve up an ace or is it more of a double fault?

It’s 1973 and the women of the US LTA are understandably unhappy that they’re only competing for one eighth the prize money of their male counterparts. Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) decides enough is enough and with the help of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) goes about setting up the Women’s Tennis Association. This provides the perfect opportunity for a former men’s champion, and permanent hustler, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) to try and smash himself back into the limelight. Bobby, a self styled male chauvinist, challenges Billie Jean to a Battle of the Sexes to prove that women’s tennis isn’t really worth as much as the men’s game. 

Battle of the Sexes is a film that certainly contains some on court action, but it’s by no means what the film is really about. I must confess I didn’t really know a lot about the story behind the film before I went in. I was aware that there had been a Battle of the Sexes match, involving Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, but I didn’t quite realise the importance of the match or what had led up to it. Don’t get me wrong the tennis that we do see is well choreographed and believable but it’s not the most important thing going on here. At its heart this is a really interesting film that goes way beyond some serve and volley fun and instead is focused on the struggles for equality both on and off the court. 

I really enjoyed Battle of the Sexes. I didn’t know what to expect going in but I was absolutely hooked within the first 10 minutes or so, it’s a real grand slam. Emma Stone does a really good job as Billie Jean King who is so supremely confident and sure footed on court but also unsure and unassuming as she tries to understand her private life and her feelings for WTA hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). I felt that at its heart this was a film about self-discovery and the growing relationship between Billie Jean and Marilyn. It’s a central pairing that is really nicely played and feels completely genuine but at times feels heartbreaking as Billie Jean tries to reconcile her own feelings with the expectations of everyone around her. 

I was surprised by Steve Carrell, I did expect he was going to be there to wear a fun wig, some big glasses and just generally clown around. There’s no escaping that Bobby Riggs was a bit of a character, and Steve Carrell is perfect for the role. While there is a lot of showmanship and bravado on display I also thought there was a touch of melancholy. He’s just someone who is struggling to deal without the thrill of being in the spotlight. I never got the impression that he actually believed what he was saying, it was all just something to get him back into the limelight like a WWE star playing a character. I thought it was a performance that could have been quite two dimensional but Carrell really puts some topspin on the character to add some real depth.

I’m by no means a huge tennis fan (my love of the film Wimbledon notwithstanding) but that really didn’t matter. At its heart Battle of the Sexes is a really engaging character study that focuses on much bigger issues than just tennis. It tells an interesting story that is really relevant today. I came out of the cinema feeling inspired, and uplifted. I really recommend going out to see it. 

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