Fair Play, 2023.
Written and directed by Chloe Domont.
Starring Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, and Eddie Marsan.
An unexpected promotion at a cutthroat hedge fund pushes a young couple’s relationship to the brink, threatening to unravel far more than their recent engagement.
Guaranteed to be one of the most talked-about films from this year’s Sundance, writer-director Chloe Domont’s incredibly assured feature debut Fair Play might be best described as the ferocious, enervating bastard child of Uncut Gems and Margin Call.
Domont’s film opens by irreverently introducing us to New York couple Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), who in the very first scene become engaged following the most hilariously sloppy proposal ever (hint: it involves cunnilingus).
The pair work together as analysts at high-flying hedge fund Crest Capital, and things are looking up when word gets around that Luke is in line for a promotion to Project Manager. But when the job goes to Emily instead, initial excitement quickly turns to conflict as Luke becomes increasingly unable to hide his disappointment. Luke struggles to deal with Emily becoming the higher earner and being invited into the company’s inner-circle – a spot he fears he’ll never reach.
For as much progress as the #MeToo movement has made in recent years, the male ego remains an implacable, fragile thing. Many men are still deeply uncomfortable with the idea of their female partner earning more than them or maintaining a more powerful position, a symptom of a society that’s spent so long measuring a woman’s success relative to a man’s.
But in the high-pressure, uniquely hyper-masculine world of finance, dudebro misogyny – where a woman’s credibility and success is forensically scrutinised – and “casual” sexist banter only exacerbate the issue. This is not to forget the veil of secrecy that Emily and Luke must conduct their relationship under, due to company policy about romances between PMs and analysts.
Though Luke initially affects a smile and joins Emily to celebrate her success, his insecurity and jealously poisons his veins; his replies get increasingly curt and passive-aggressive, he doesn’t want to be intimate, and can’t shake the thought that Emily might’ve traded sex with her boss, Campbell (Eddie Marsan), to nab the PM job from under him. Add in the fact that Emily is now his superior and privy to inside information, and the pair’s relationship is held firmly to the flames.
Beyond its pointed examination of male insecurity, Fair Play also gamely tackles the spiritually destructive lack of work-life balance in the financial sector, where Emily’s superiors pressure her to drink and expect her to join them at a club without warning in the middle of the night. For Emily, her realistic options are limited beyond acquiescing and, when offered a seat at the table of the Boys’ Club, joining them.
This boiling tension builds to an emotionally brutal third act, which hits with a blunt, bruising force in a provocative manner sure to inspire much discussion. Dumont’s script perhaps over-extends itself at the very end, landing at a more elevated, melodramatic finale than the brilliantly concise off-ramp suggested about 10 minutes earlier, but it still concludes on a punchy, fiery note sure to leave audiences breathless.
As generally tight as Dumont’s script is – no working knowledge of Wall Street required – it’s the two stunning central performances which truly buoy this fraught drama. Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor is outstanding as the ambitious, indefatigable, increasingly frustrated Emily, while Alden Ehrenreich is shrewdly cast as the disarmingly handsome Luke, whose million dollar smile conceals a wounded darkness percolating beneath. Their natural chemistry is sublime, ensuring some vicious arguments later in the film land like bombs. Eddie Marsan also gives a game supporting turn as Emily and Luke’s scumbag boss Campbell.
Menno Mans’ stately cinematography quite perfectly captures the blandly soul-sucking aesthetic of any financial sector office, and the dimly-lit confines of Emily and Luke’s apartment scarcely provides respite. Brian McOmber’s dynamic musical score could meanwhile easily be re-fitted to suit an outright thriller film, the urgent, anxious recurring ticking sounds and pulsing electronic riffs enhancing what is already a thoroughly stressful movie to sit through.
Fair Play is a savage, wince-inducing takedown of fragile masculinity and toxic workplaces, abetted by excellent performances from Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.