Oscar-winner Emma Stone plays a real-life champ in this hugely entertaining true story set in the 1970s. She’s Billie Jean King, the world’s number one tennis player, who agrees to take on Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in a groundbreaking “Battle of the Sexes” match. Her aim is to prove that women deserve the same pay and recognition as the male tennis players, so there’s plenty at stake in this film, which is as inspiring as it is enjoyable.
Transforming into King with dark hair, glasses and minimal make-up, Stone proves her versatility with a terrific turn as the sparky pro who puts the game before everything – until she meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (a brilliant Andrea Riseborough). An attraction develops, but Billie Jean is married – and this is the 1970s, when a same-sex scandal could ruin her career. It’s both gripping and affecting to watch the heroine try to balance her career and marriage and sexual discovery. Over on the men’s side, Steve Carell is an absolute hoot as the larger-than-life Riggs, a self-made celebrity who proudly labels himself a “chauvinist” for the televised Battle Of The Sexes. A cheerfully compulsive gambler, he tries the patience of his glamorous wife (a fabulous Elisabeth Shue), but wins the support of the guys, including Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), King’s nemesis. Carell puts in a nuanced performance that perfectly balances the contrasts of his tragi-comic character.
Despite a nail-biting finale on the court, Battle Of The Sexes is more about character than sport. It’s about a woman who puts her career on the line for what she believes in, and about a man who’s struggling to hang onto his fame – and who’s willing to potentially humiliate himself to retain it. It’s a film that’s full of talent both in front of and behind the camera: directing duo Faris and Dayton helmed the wonderful Little Miss Sunshine; Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) penned the screenplay; and the great Danny Boyle is on board as producer. The hair and make-up teams deliver fun costumes and hairdos, while the ’70s groove continues with beautiful visuals, backdrops and an infectious retro soundtrack.
With its themes of sexual identity and gender equality, this film is all too relevant today, but it’s never worthy or preachy. It’s just as entertaining, suspenseful and feel-good as that historic tennis match back in 1973.