The King and the Showman; Battle of the Sexes (2017), dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

uk posterWhat could be more satisfactory than watching a charismatic person embody another charismatic person?! (Many things I imagine but that is not the point here…) This is the case for Emma Stone and Billie Jean King who in the Battle of the Sexes found one another and a strong and emotive performance was born. Apart from a successfully achieved – however unlikely – physical resemblance (apart from the dentalized lisp they coincidentally share…), Emma Stone captures the speech patterns, the forward-leaning walking style and all the traits of King’s introvert nature. She is mesmerising and powerful, she fills the screen with her talent and focus.

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Steve Carell gives us Bobby Riggs, the man who had a very relevant for his time (unfortunately, for ours too…) and showbizzie idea to put a feminist to fight on court a ‘sugar daddy’ chauvinist pig. Carell is excellent at adding layers to an otherwise ridiculous persona; like Stone, he does a great job at presenting a most realistic version of his character, capturing Bobby’s caricature traits, his quick and pompous talking style and his social talents that extend from the bets on court he sets with friends to the imaginative games he improvises to entertain his son. However, Carell doesn’t leave it there, he delves deeper into Bobby’s psyche and delivers a more personal portrait, that of a man who faces addiction, struggles with a dull routine that sets him even further away from a stardom he feels he still deserves, and who is in denial when things get tough.

Emma Stone is equally exquisite in her portrait of this great woman and athlete. She is playing in many courts so to speak, as she is in a fight for gender equality first in the sport but then also, this extends to the American society at large. In addition, she is facing an immense challenge in preparation for the game against Riggs and on the day of course and finally, she is discovering her sexuality.

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Andrea Riseborough is a lovely hairdresser, Marilyn who becomes Bille Jean’s first female lover. The scenes they share are exceptionally sweet and intoxicating thanks to their chemistry and the numbing close-ups. Numbing and investigative in the sense that this way of shooting puts us in the place of these women, admiring each other, carefully observing every little trait they have, the smiles, the eyes, the shyness, and the words that carefully and slowly come out. There is something precious and overly personal in capturing their relationship in romantic and dreamy shots.

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Other memorable mentions from a cast perspective; Sarah Silverman is incredibly powerful and effortlessly funny as Gladys Heldman, the tennis promoter who fought alongside King and her fellow tennis pros against the male tennis establishment. Alan Cumming, a stylist whose warmth and words infested with meaning created some delightfully wise moments on screen.

Larry King, Billie Jean’s husband is played by Austin Stowell who is a very pretty face but not just that. It is thanks to the hotel scene where he has an unexpected encounter with lingerie that we understand how good an actor he is; the stillness of his eyes, the confusion that gives its place to bitterness and the process of making a crucial decision for his marriage, to swallow his words or act on them. His performance is transparent to all these thoughts and feelings and the scene is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally charged of the film alongside with the long-anticipated match and the first encounters of Billie and Marilyn.

The film gave room for powerful performances, but it is not a very good one. It could have benefited by being 30 minutes shorter and by better editing in the sense that transitions between the parallel narratives disempowered the tension of the storytelling. In reality, Battle of the Sexes seems to be treating the events with a lightness that does not do credit to the battle in question.

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Somehow the film puts a veil on the darkness and cruelty of that time, focusing on the superficial elements of the actual show and not gazing at the emotional effect discrimination places in our protagonists’ hearts. Also, it felt as Bobby’s vulgarity was overshadowed by his portrayal as a harmless clown, which could not have been possibly the case. A man capable of such grotesque behaviour is imbecile and harmful as he accredits similar views held by other members of the society as we’ve recently witnessed with Donald Trump in the US elections for instance. Battle of the sexes has a documentary feel and a soundtrack that easily transports us in the ‘70s however, only performances and certain lines give the piece tension and thrill with the rest of it feeling like a silent and passive depiction of events or to be more accurate, the backstories of THE event.

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After the film you might check the original game, look up the amazing Billie Jean King, try to imitate Sarah Silverman’s accent and play some tennis because it is an amazing and thrilling sport. Also, man or woman you might take a few seconds to go through your most unprocessed, instinctive thoughts and pick those that have some Bobby in them and then make sure you understand why they’re there and how you get read of them. However, if you can’t find anything wrong with them then, don’t waste a minute longer and go see a therapist immediately! Finally, you might find yourself wondering how honest you are about your true desires and what are YOU going to do to change the things that matter?

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Obsession & Old Pearls; My Cousin Rachel (2017), dir: Roger Michell

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The world was on fire and no one could save me but you

It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do

I’d never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you

And I’d never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you

 

A cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game (performed by Ursine Vulpine ft. Annaca) was chosen to dress the film’s trailer and I believe there couldn’t have been a more appropriate song.

The film is an adaptation of Daphne’s du Maurier 1951 novel of the same name, written and directed by the South African director, Roger Michell. I’ve previously watched the original 1952 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton so the instant comparison in my head favoured the most recent version. The film’s cinematography by Joseph LaShelle elevates the beauty and elegance of British countryside (the story unfolds in a Cornwall estate) and the excellent performances. In fact, My Cousin Rachel has a theatrical feel in its directing and acting, as the cast is responsible for thrilling scenes that focus on dialogue and atmosphere. Speaking of which, the lush score composed by Rael Jones designs a mysterious and gloom frame.

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Throughout the film I developed tension and discomfort that kept me company all the way through the end, which I welcomed like a breath of fresh air because it concluded my agony and sadness. The exquisite photography was enhanced by the film’s Victorian setting, where we meet a woman, Rachel who is suspected to have committed slow and well-calculated murder by poisoning her husband. Rachel, portrayed by the masterful and powerful in all her performances Rachel Weisz, is a unique specimen of her sex. She is astonishingly beautiful and cunningly seductive. Weisz brings a dark and tragic tone to her character that lies under her confidence and disarming sexuality.

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There is great mystery surrounding Rachel as not only the facts of her past are only speculated upon but also because her every sentence and full-of-meaning looks promise an insight into her soul while in contrast, they give ground to further confusion. Accused of having turned into a sinister and grasping wife who, as the cherry on top has viciously got rid of her husband, she starts a love affair with Philip, her late husband’s nephew.

Admittedly, Rachel is neither trustworthy nor frank but she should not be placed on the other tip of the scale either, in my opinion. It is wisely said that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. She’s passionate, sensitive and kind but also smart and shameless. She apparently has come to the realisation that only by achieving her financial and marital independence she can become her own person and enjoy a free life and thus, employs every mean to accomplish her goals.

It is often forgotten that in times when women were eternally dependent on their fathers and husbands, seeking independence took great courage and could trigger survival instincts similar to those of an animal who’s fallen into a deathly trap and fights for its life.

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Sam Claflin creates a magnetising and tormented Philip that falls unexpectedly in love and loses all reason. As Claflin mentions in an interview, Philip is a boy who believes he’s a man, and he successfully plays that part as a student and a loving nephew up until the point when his whole world crumbles: the man who raised him and considers his father, his Uncle Ambrose dies and leaves cues that incriminate his wife.

There is such childishness, innocence and naivety in Philip that turn him into an almost antipathetic character as he is perceived as a weak, google-eyed, untrained puppy and thus, idiotic in his altruistic acts of love. However, Philip doesn’t lack a darker side: he is possessive, impulsive and ill-tempered with violent outbursts that remind us that even the most gullible people can cause great harm. In his defence however, Philip who hasn’t interacted with women growing up is the most vulnerable prey for an experienced and manipulative woman that also happens to be his first love and sexual experience.

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In all his inner mess and outrageous, most eccentric and neurotic behaviour, he never loses one friend, the sweet and protective Louise (Holliday Grainger). Louise is not the opposite of Rachel but demonstrates another kind of strength and confidence. She is plainly in love with Philip and despite having to put up with his insults and a broken heart, she remains a loyal friend and gains our respect and admiration.

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Did Rachel poison them, or didn’t she?

She did! I believe that when Ambrose’s mental state was permanently affected by his brain tumor, she chose to poison him and set herself free from an abusive – despite it being none of his fault – husband. Later on, when Philip became asphyxiating, she had to bring back her poisonous herbs, only to regret it shortly afterwards – perhaps moved by his love and devotion, or feeling pity for his foolishness – and decide to see to his health.

The beauty in stories that leave you wondering is the complexity and sincerity attributed to the characters in the process. When a film achieves confusion to such extent then it has provided an interesting tale of mystery, deceit and complicated personalities.

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Finally, there were some incredible scenes beautifully-executed by Weisz and Claflin. Let’s take their first encounter for instance, where she offers him tea and cake, and he needs to lick his fingers from the melting butter. In the original film, it’s a comment lost between the lines and Burton’s sterile response is easily forgotten. In complete contrast, Michell and his performers take those lines and make an erotic, uneasy and utterly memorable scene out of them. The same stays true for the scene of whispers exchanged over a whipping Rachel, Philip’s outburst and many others.

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After the film you might want to read Du Maurier’s novel, listen to the lush and dark original score, remember a time when you were innocent and gullible in the matters of love, look up how many poisonous seeds exist in nature, debate whether Rachel is guilty or not, and finally make yourselves a hideous, healthy brew while pondering about the irresistibly seductive people you’ve met in your life so far.