[Published as part of Geek Vibes Nation’s coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.]
Love does not conquer all.
If it did, Fair Play probably would’ve been a short film. No, with millions of dollars, a vile “boy’s club” culture, and fragile egos afoot, all in concert with one another, love doesn’t stand a chance in hell.
That is the harsh lesson Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) learn in Chloe Domont’s directorial feature debut. The newly-engaged couple lives a happy but stressful life working as financial analysts in a powerful firm. When a project manager position opens up, Emily believes Luke is in line for the job, despite her natural perceptive skill. Luke believes it too, but he assures her they will eventually be on the same playing field, free to be together publicly without HR’s interference. They’re both wrong: Emily is promoted instead of Luke, becoming his boss and learning that her fiancé’s position in the firm isn’t as stable as they thought. At first, Luke plays the supportive future spouse. However, his insecurities collide with her ascendancy in the firm, toxifying their relationship to horrifying levels.
Their relationship is a timebomb from the millisecond Emily learns about her promotion. Fair Play doesn’t bother denying it; instead, it makes the ticking as tense and testy as possible. Emily and Luke’s relationship breaks down in specks that Domont often captures in glossy medium close-ups. They show Emily and Luke’s susceptibility to being knocked off-balance by an erstwhile word or discomfiting touch. Their physical connection is the first to crumble, as it is our initial introduction to their relationship. Emily and Luke moved in sync at the start, sharing a charged but soft intimacy. Domont carefully follows their fraying affection, in minute changes to their routine to genuinely uncomfortable sexual encounters. Soon enough, the couple lovingly tangled in a blanket on the floor is little more than mottled string.
If their physical communication is tattered, Emily and Luke’s verbal communication is obliterated. Domont’s screenplay is razor-sharp, and she unspools its insights into their broken relationship at a surprisingly natural but punchy pace. The lines they say and eventually shout at each other and others don’t just hurt; they maim. Their words reflect the world of multi-million-dollar finance: high risk and high reward. Emily and Luke internalize their cruel culture and turn it on each other, saying seemingly unspeakable things and then somehow saying worse. It is vicious, brutal, and utterly captivating.
Emily and Luke’s relationship breakdown doesn’t occur in a bubble, despite how intensely personal it is. Fair Play is a fierce deconstruction of the work cultures that reward and condemn fragile male egos. It is an environment where a senior leader can call his female subordinate a “f*cking dumb bitch” without reprimand, despite her sterling record. At the same time, an underperforming male associate can continue to fail because his father is a semi-close friend. Emily and Luke are products of their office. She diminishes her talent and twists herself to fit in. He so frequently exceeds his mediocrity that he can only process her success by suggesting she compromised herself sexually. Their relationship dissolves into chaotic, ruthless, and violent extremes, but the emotions and assumptions beneath them are uncomfortably real.
Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich render Fair Play’s fractured work and gender dynamics with stunning, raw precision. Dynevor delivers a multi-layered portrait of a talented woman who can’t help occasionally wavering against her male colleagues and partner. She comes alive before our eyes as Emily seeks, stumbles, and finally claims her power, conveying both powerful vulnerability and ferocity. Ehrenreich matches her in the opposite direction. He shrinks from a confident, performatively supportive partner into a desperate, pathetic shell who can only claim power through violence and intimidation. They are excellent in their own right, but their intense chemistry ignites the screen with fiery passion and rage.
Fair Play is an incendiary, stunning look at ruthless ambition’s innate compatibility with workplace misogyny. Domont constructs a stylish and unsettling map that outlines their combined pervasiveness and how no one is immune to its baser impulses. It’s designed to be a shock to our systems. It is, but not because of its excellent story or powerful performances. The shock comes from its ugly familiarity, how many other relationships can relate to love’s failure against such a brutal force.