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.
Or as Riggs pithily summarises the rivalry in the film: “Male chauvinistic pig versus hairy-legged feminist, no offence.”
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 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, announces the prize money for a forthcoming tournament, which is weighted in favour of the male players.
“They’re faster, stronger and more competitive. It’s just biology,” argues Kramer.
In retaliation, King spearheads the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association.
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.
As Billie Jean agonises with her forbidden desires, former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), now past his prime, 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 demo-nstrates 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.
Carell portrays her opponent as a media-savvy showman and buffoon,weighed down by the expectations of an establishment that believes, “people pay to see the men play. They’re more of a draw”.
When the tears of his clown start to fall, we’re moved.