FAIR PLAY (TIFF 2023) – Review by Karen Gordon

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Writer/director Chloe Domont has cut her teeth directing tv shows like Billions, Suits and Ballers. She makes a fantastic feature film debut with Fair Play, a taut film that moves from drama to comedy to horror (for me anyway) and back to drama as in it’s depiction of gender power dynamics both in relationships, and in the workplace., a taut film that moves from drama to comedy to horror (for me anyway) and back to drama as in it’s depiction of gender power dynamics both in relationships, and in the workplace.

The film is set in the pressure cooker of a hedge fund company. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are a great couple, crazy in love and in lust with each other. They’re both analysts at the same firm where intense pressure and competition with co-workers is the corporate culture, and, no one honestly expects to have a long happy career in that office. She’s the only woman in the analyst pool, and they’re violating company policy that forbids intra-office relationships. So when the owner, the inhumanly icy Campbell (Eddie Marsan), and his partner Paul (Rich Sommer), fire the Portfolio Manager (who spectacularly destroys the office with a golf club), the question is who will get the PM gig. Emily hears gossip saying it will be Luke, which she passes on and the two celebrate the potential. But, then, she gets a very late night call to meet with Campbell who offers her the job. She feels weird about it, but Luke doesn’t seem at all fazed by it.

Then they get into the office and the new reality throws a merry go round of continual challenges at each of them. In just a few hours she’s gone from his peer to his boss. Suddenly she’s has a lot of power, including making quick decisions about what her analysts have brought to her, and the big boys are listening to what she has to say. On top of it she’s now privy to the thoughts and perspective of Campbell and Paul, including their feelings about Luke And the rhythms of their work days, which have been in sync, are now different. She’s expected to be hanging with the boys at night, and navigating Campbell’s late night phone calls.

Domont has crafted a fantastic script here, that sets the scene really beautifully and then credibly unwinds the way the power dynamic in the relationship starts to shift in spite of best efforts.

I’m stepping around this, trying not to use the term ‘male fragility’, which the director herself used in the post screening Q&A. But certainly, that is a piece of what is going on here, especially for Luke, but it also reduces the film which is much more complex, and psychologically interesting. I’m guessing a lot of women will understand the pressure on Emily, who is more than game for the challenge of the new job, but at the same time always conscious of how seizing the opportunity, and embracing her own skills and ambitions, is affecting Luke. At the same time, Luke, who feels the power shift immediately, and tries to rally and find his equilibrium, is never played as a caricature. And I also suspect anyone who has found themselves on the losing side of a work situation will relate to what he’s going through. That’s important to the tone here. While the gender issue is at the centre here, their careful work doesn’t tip the film into something too simplistic. There’s a lot more going on which is what makes the film so interesting.

Domont may lean on some clichés by setting the film in the intense world of finance, with a boss who is your basic nightmare, but the script unwinds the psychology of Emily and Luke as they wrangle with the new situation. A lot of the success of the film rests on Dynevor and Ehrenreich, who have to navigate characters moving very quickly through a series of incremental emotional and psychological changes that are shifting the film from scene to scene. They are both superb.

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Karen Gordon

Karen Gordon is a film critic, arts journalist, radio producer, as well as a story editor and narration writer for documentary TV and film. Her recent project the IMAX film “Volcanoes: Fires of Creation” premiered in fall 2018, and will roll out internationally through 2019. She hosts, and does live Q&A’s at film events. She has ghost written three best selling cookbooks, with celebrity chef David Rocco.