Battle Of The Sexes (12A)

IT'S not often that a sports film would be regarded as important. Fun, stirring, yes – though not relevant. But as the famous tennis match from which it takes its name suggests, Battle Of The Sexes is about a lot more than sport.

In 1973 two American tennis players took part in one of the most watched televised sporting events of all time. Billie Jean King, 29 and one of the leading female players in the world, took on Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon champ who was then 55 years old and scraping a living on the senior circuit.

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The match was at Riggs’s behest, a challenge from a self-styled “chauvinist pig” that a women could never beat a man on court, whatever the age difference. Just as the women’s movement was beginning to make an impact in the US, the “grudge match” captured the public imagination. And made a lot of men very nervous.

Given the current female fightback against decades of institutionalised sexism and physical abuse meted out by men, for sheer timing the film is serving an ace straight out the blocks.

Cleverly, it offers much more than the match itself, revealing the pressures in the personal lives of both players. Though married, King (Emma Stone) was involved in a relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), at a time when to come out as gay could have dramatic consequences for her career. Riggs (Steve Carell) had a gambling addiction that was threatening his marriage.

And yet, despite all of this serious subject matter, the film is absurdly enjoyable – the issues combined with comedy, romance, fully-fledged characters and the feel-good feeling that comes from seeing people stand up for their rights. Led by hugely likeable performances by its stars, and lent texture by its fond depiction of the period, the film tosses winners all over the court.

It opens in 1972 with King at loggerheads with establishment tennis chief and diehard sexist Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over the discrepancy between male and female pay. When he refuses to give in, she leads a rebel women’s tour, alongside formidable PR Gladys Heldman (a good0value Sarah Silverman). It’s while having her hair done for the tour that King meets Marilyn Barnett and romance blooms.

Meanwhile, Riggs is missing the limelight and not taking his addiction too seriously – playing cards with his shrink and berating his fellow members of Gamblers Anonymous with the observation that: “You’re here because you’re terrible gamblers.”

For Riggs, the sexist dressing of his challenge is a prank, albeit one that will return him to centre stage with a hefty pay day. King is dead serious, the stakes in the gender war too high to ignore, despite the risk to her private life of increased media attention.

Carell finds the humanity in someone who could so easily have become a caricature, revealing the desperation and sweetness behind Riggs’s crass persona. Stone captures King’s feisty indomitability, plays the romance with Riseborough beautifully, and immerses herself in the role to such a degree that she begins to look like a woman with whom she bears no resemblance. Both shape up pretty well on the court.

It’s apt that Battle Of The Sexes should be directed by a finely tuned mixed double, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, best known for their delightfully eccentric comic road movie, Little Miss Sunshine. It’s written by the Brit Simon Beaufoy, who won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. Together they’ve put together a multi-layered feast – not just the first great tennis movie, but one of the most appealing films of the year.