It’s all about power. It’s a ruthless and unforgiving game that everyone must play. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) seem to be playing on the same team, at least in the beginning of Fair Play. They’re happy together in their New York apartment and just agreed to an impromptu engagement, all while keeping their relationship a secret from their coworkers.
Both Emily and Luke work in the same financial firm. Though the work ethic is stressful and merciless, at least they have each other. That is until the firm’s portfolio manager is fired and Emily is promoted to take over the position, with Luke now being assigned to work for her. What starts as an exciting new start for the couple quickly devolves into something bitter, with irrevocable consequences.
An unsophisticated script could easily take Fair Play into overly simplistic territory. Luke is just jealous of this change in power dynamic, right? After all, she shared with him a rumor (she didn’t know it was false) that the promotion was going to go to him. Though Luke congratulates Emily like the supportive fiancé he should be, we can all see that his eyes speak something entirely different. So it has to be jealousy, right? Well, writer/director Chloe Domont is much smarter than that.
Fair Play is not just about the power game, it’s about how such a game is always rigged against women. Emily and Luke are hardworking people. Both of them put their blood, sweat, and tears into their jobs. For the audience, we are given access to Emily’s late night meeting with firm CEO Campbell (a stone cold Eddie Marsan) to see that she earned her promotion fair and square. And yet the game still feels like a lose-lose for her. Yes, of course Luke is jealous, but the brilliance in the script is how Domont writes Luke’s intentions. So many of his lines are less about expressing his frustrations and more of an ugliness and desire to undercut Emily’s talents. It’s an insecure man explaining away the woman. With that level of sophistication, Fair Play is able to conjure up brilliant suspense.
So much of the brewing conflict between Emily and Luke actually lives in both their minds. For Domont, it’s as much of an internal battle as it is an external one. With her guidance, Dynevor and Ehrenreich turn in phenomenal performances. Though they do share fantastic chemistry with one another at the more heated confrontations, their best moments come from scenes where they are alone and isolated. Their eyes dart back and forth, whether it’s from their work or from looking at each other through glass panels in the office. You can audibly hear the gears turning in both their heads as they struggle to figure out what to do next, whether it’s to fix their relationship or to cover their own asses.
The film also spends some quality time in the actual jobs and day-to-day struggles Emily and Luke have to go through. Though you’re not supposed to actually understand what the firm is dealing with, there is plenty of inside baseball jargon flying back and forth to understand what the stakes are, who is responsible to fix it, and who is going to take the blame if it all goes downhill. During sequences like these, you might find yourself genuinely rooting for Emily and Luke to figure it out. After all, these moments remind us (and them) that they really are playing on the same team. It also helps when Emily, who’s now at a higher position of power, constantly attempts to remedy things with Luke. But Luke is a man who shuts down. It’s a brilliant ticking time bomb, and we’re all waiting for it to explode.
By the time Fair Play enters its third and final act, it falls in danger of overstaying its welcome. Emotions and actions are turned up to eleven, you’re wondering where the film is heading, and you start to hope the ending doesn’t fall apart. Though the resolution itself is a rewarding one, the path to get there could use a little trimming and tidying – a small overstep in what is already a tight and tense thriller.
But there is so much to dissect in the power and gender politics in Fair Play. Nearly every line of dialogue thrown between Emily and Luke is ripe with an undertone of sinister intentions or subtext reading. It’s all thanks to Domont’s subtle direction and dynamite performances from Dynevor and Ehrenreich. It’s an exhausting game, and it was never a fair one, not when men like Luke continue to see their place in the world under threat. Domont acknowledges that culture right up front, that it was always rigged against Emily. Which is why we all get to breathe a sigh of relief when she plays it well right to the very end.
Fair Play is screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute