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You can’t miss the whiff of prestige wafting all over Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes. A dramatic retelling of a historically significant event with two high-caliber Oscar contenders, it tells the story of the showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Directors Dayton & Faris had a good collaboration with Carell in Little Miss Sunshine, and writer Simon Beaufoy is best known for Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire.

But the story doesn’t end there. One of the pleasant surprises of the film is that it folds in other achievements of King and the women tennis players of her time, from the formation and establishment of the Women’s Tennis Association to the introduction of color to their tennis wardrobe. Indeed, the film is weighted toward King more than Riggs, and rightly so: this was a moment in women’s lib, in feminism, that broke through in the popular culture of its time. Woven through it all is King’s realization that she is gay, which is nicely rendered by Emma Stone’s performance and the film’s languorous sequences. Thanks to good editing and some beautiful shots from cinematographer Linus Sandgren, the dizzying romance between Stone’s King and Andrea Riseborough’s Marilyn have a sensual, intoxicating feel.

Sandgren’s lensing and Judy Becker’s production design stand out in the film, firmly cementing the look of the ‘70s with its colors and sets, even down to the fuzzy look of what is assumed to be a film shoot (some sequences even look 16mm). And though the bulk of the film concerns itself with King, Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs gets his own sequences, and Carell makes the most of them, bringing a garrulous pomposity to Riggs while equally delivering powerful work in quieter moments, presenting Riggs as a vulnerable, fragile man. The sequences where he must stay over with his eldest son, in particular, are some of Carell’s finest work.

Another nice surprise is how sympathetic the lead characters’ respective partners are treated and depicted. Carell’s wife, played by Elisabeth Shue, and King’s husband, played by Austin Stowell, don’t get the typical villainous treatment that projects of this type tend to dole out. They get their moments of frustration, but nothing particularly ham-fisted or heavy-handed. In fact, Shue’s character gets to reveal different shades of her personality as it goes on.

As King, Stone inhabits the legend well, her expressive big eyes broadcasting every thought and emotion, verbalized or not. Her rapport with Riseborough is felt, and easy. She is ably supported by a supporting ensemble that includes Sarah Silverman, Natalie Morales, and a foil in the guise of Bill Pullman’s Jack Cramer.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the film, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but also doesn’t elevate the film above a crop of very good peers. It’s well-made, and everyone does great work in it, but it also can’t help but feel like a prestige film aimed at awards season with certain boxes to check, such as speeches from “magical stylist” Alan Cumming about the struggle of acceptance.

It all makes for a pleasant experience, nonetheless; moving, and powerful, but your mileage may vary on how you feel about it several months down the road.

Photos from IMDb

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