2023, R, 113 min. Directed by Chloe Domont. Starring Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, Sebastian De Souza, Sia Alipour, Jamie Wilkes.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 29, 2023
What better way to get to know a couple then to throw them in an uncomfortable situation and see how they wriggle out of it? Fair Play introduces its romantic leads – Emily (Dynevor) and Luke (Ehrenreich) – by thrusting them into a situation so calamitous, so primed for social mortification, you can’t help but laugh. But so too do Emily and Luke, merrily cackling and making their escape hand in hand. It’s a devilish opening gambit from first-time writer/director Chloe Domont, yoking us to this twosome – these kids are definitely gonna make it, you might think affectionately – and then testing their bond almost immediately.
Emily and Luke are junior stock traders eager to make their names and their fortunes. They’re colleagues at the same firm, though company policy prohibits interoffice dating, so they’ve kept their relationship a secret. By the nature of their jobs, they are also competitors. When one of them advances in the film’s opening minutes, it means the other was passed over for the position, which comes with a new office, clubby drinks with the boss, and a six-figure bonus. The sudden disruption to their status quo introduces a tension that starts like a slow tire leak and ends in a blowout of three-car-pileup-like proportions.
Domont draws daring performances from Dynevor and Ehrenreich (each putting some distance between their defining, people-pleasing parts, on Bridgerton and in Solo: A Star Wars Story, respectively) and they attack their roles with grim determination. Gender expectations, the distinctions between our work and home selves, what we'll do to get ahead at the office, the brain-melting influence of certain dark alleys of the internet – it’s all fodder here. Domont’s premise is a provocative one, and she crafts expertly cutting dialogue around it.
But Fair Play goes nowhere surprising with that premise, which is why, after the ecstatic opening, a feeling of dreariness cut with anxiety descends. Or is it anxiety cut with dreariness? The sound design, emphasizing the ceaseless hum of city living – the elevated train, a vacuum cleaner, another 4:30am wake-up alarm – coupled with Brian McOmber’s scratchy-insides score, puts the film’s resting heart rate at around two-beats-shy-of-a-panic-attack. It’s an ugly place to be stuck for two hours: a credible depiction of human nature at its worst, sure, but not an especially illuminating one. Still, there’s nerviness here, and undeniable skill. I’d like to see what Domont does next.