Sundance Film Festival 2023 Review – Fair Play (2023)

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Could 2023 be the Year of Alden Ehrenreich? If it is, it’ll be third time lucky. After it looked like happening when he starred in the Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar! and didn’t, the omens were good again two years for Solo: A Star Wars Story. But things stalled. However, the likes of Cocaine Bear and Oppenheimer are on his cinematic slate over the coming months, together with a venture into the MCU with Ironheart on TV. And he makes an impressive start to the year at Sundance with Fair Play, an explosive drama with echoes of Margin Call and The Big Short.

Luke (Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) both work in the cutthroat world of finance. In fact, they sit opposite each other in the same office but, because of company policy, their relationship is secret – even when they get engaged. The sudden departure of a senior member of the team opens up a vacancy, the grapevine says Luke will get it, but it goes to Emily. Initially, nothing changes but the dynamics start to shift in their relationship – she’s now his boss, she earns more than him – and success clearly has a high price tag. Only one of them can afford it.

The fierce competition and no-hiding-place glass panelled world of high finance is as familiar as its many issues – toxicity, mysogeny, ambition, greed – all of which have made it a bubbling cauldron of dramatic potential. In the case of Fair Play, they all boil over spectacularly as careers come to a sudden halt, cracks in relationships become chasms and the combination of ambition and money rule. Nothing else matters. The added impetus comes from Emily’s promotion, one that prompts dagger-like glances from her male peers – as a woman, she’s very much in the minority – and the inevitable speculation about how she got the job. Luke, of course, can see and hear all this and it eats away at him, undermining the trust in their relationship and denting his male pride. She wants to help him further his career, he wants to do it himself. The lingering resentment that can come when one half of a couple is more successful than the other is sharply written and portrayed, jangling loud bells especially for anybody who’s found themself in that situation.

Dynevor’s move away from the world of Bridgerton suits her. With a smart script to work with, she’s highly intelligent, driven and ultimately devastating, matched by Ehrenreich as her partner/rival, with his personal ambitions and inability to cope with having them thwarted at every turn. Both are excellent, and Eddie Marsan, all steely hair and stare to match, is as great as ever. But what really drives the film is a brief moment cleverly tucked away in the background of the an early scene when a senior colleague melts down in his office. Everybody else is watching the company’s video about values such as diversity, equality. It trumpets their importance in its culture. Would that it were so simple.

★★★★

Thriller | Sundance Film Festival, premiered on 20 January 2023 | Dir. Chloe Domont | Alden Ehrenreich, Phoebe Dynevor, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, Sebastian De Souza.

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