It is a weird prospect that my being unable to buy into the chemistry of the two leads somehow actually helps in getting into the skin of Chloe Domont’s directorial debut Fair Play (2023) because the chemistry between Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) isn’t captivating enough for me to root for their relationship, and thus be emotionally invested in seeing it fall, like watching a horror movie with my eyes closed and peeking through the gaps of my fingers.
Once it is determined that the chemistry between the leads isn’t strong enough, I become the horror movie spectator who watches all the violence and dread with eyes open, like watching an accident with morbid fascination. The story follows these two working in the same hedge fund and managing the cutthroat life with the powerplays, corporate backstabbing, and power dynamics. It is a far more difficult one for Emily as well, being a woman in a male-dominated firm and having to prove herself on every front.
But one rumor she hears about Luke being promoted backfires because, as it turns out, Campbell (Eddie Marsan), the head of the firm, is interested in promoting her to essentially the job Luke had been coveting. Now, the mind games magnify as Luke and Emily have to navigate hiding their relationship and engagement from the rest of the firm, presenting an impression of a platonic one in the workplace because they are breaking company policy. The dynamics change drastically because Luke has to work directly under Emily.
Emily, being the intelligent one, tries to corral their relationship by convincing Luke that she could help his career so that this promotion becomes beneficial for both of them. However, the problem arises from the prickly notion of the male ego’s fragility rears its ugly head, drenched in the fumes of male toxicity and self-sabotage. So, while Emily is trying to navigate her promotion and pressures from her job and being directly under the scrutiny of her boss as well as helping Luke, Luke is spiraling out of control, internally fuming, reading self-help books to motivate himself. When Campbell and the higher-ups reject his ideas, he is passive-aggressive with Emily, such that the relationship hangs by a knife’s edge.
Alden Ehrenreich, as the pathetic, overgrown manchild unable to comprehend that maybe his girlfriend truly might be better at her job than him. But instead allows his inherent misogyny to guide him into thinking of any unsavory alternatives. Ehrenreich’s eyes truly show his wild nature, his silent anger, and a form of sadism arising from bitter anger at the world, apparently not understanding his talent.
Phoebe Dynevor, on the other hand, is the star of the show. Charismatic, truly owning the screen in every frame she is in, Dynevor is playing the character the director is more fascinated by exploring, and thus, her role allows her to show more interiority and more nuances. Emily is trying very hard to become like one of the boys in the club by flipping the switch in her head to let go of her inhibitions and allowing herself to understand the reckless, testosterone-driven party animals around her. Visually, all it needs is the camera cutting to Dynevor and just tilting her head to understand what decision she is taking.
The strength of this movie lies in its moments rather than a cohesive whole. Every confrontation between Emily and Luke, or confrontation in the office, almost has a three-act structure underlying it. But as a cohesive whole, Fair Play is a narrative mess. I appreciate Dumont’s direction in not getting bogged down by the financial jargon of the hedge fund but more in distilling the fundamental elements, which would be clearer to the audience, and in exploring the emotional finality of every interaction rather than getting into the minutiae of how a 15% short would help Emily recover the funds she had lost by Luke’s gamble.
As a result, characters like Campbell or the rest of the supporting characters become a little less than archetypes—plot markers to guide these characters through or passersby in the inevitable car crash this relationship devolves into.
But while the deterioration of this relationship is interesting almost academically, from a storytelling perspective, it is messy, with the ending deliberately raising eyebrows. Fair Play commits the cardinal sin of taking an important message-oriented story and failing to stick to the landing because it aims to hammer home the message with as much provocation as possible. Reading the final consummation as an act of rape is sobering. But Emily’s retaliation towards Luke in the film’s denouement threatens to devolve into a shlock designed as a provocation.
It needed the same amount of nuance the movie had teased and almost succeeded in reaching in the previous acts. Because when it succeeds, Fair Play is as tense as the best thrillers out there. Thankfully, it succeeds more often than it fails.