Relationship dynamics, both at home and in the workplace, are undeniably complex. Especially as one member of the couple does better or worse than the other, watching fissures form has inspired many a filmmaker. Fair Play, one of the most buzzed about titles at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, is playing with these elements, while also asking questions about who you’d identify with. Where you stand within the couple doesn’t factor in to whether you’ll enjoy it or not, but the final scenes may well play differently, depending on who you’re backing.
Fair Play wants to say a lot, and while it sometimes does so in a slightly artificial way (it’s a work of fiction, after all), it does so in such an assured manner that it never once threatens to lose you. When it’s doing things like you’d see in Margin Call, it does it well. When there’s even hints of an erotic thriller, it does that well, too. Deftly navigating this territory, it tells a tale that’s sure to linger once the end credits roll.
Power couple Emile (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are young, in love, and work together at a top hedge fund. They keep their relationship a secret at the office, but at a party, are hardly above sneaking away for some sex. They’re clearly delighted by one another, or at least they are right up until a promotion comes up at work. Emile hears that Luke is getting it, but when the decision is made, she’s the one picked. He says he’s excited and happy for her, but from that moment on, something changes.
As tension mounts at home and at work, Emily and Luke see their relationship pushed to the brink. Their boss (Eddie Marsan) sees great things in her and his little use for him, which doesn’t help matters. They stop having sex, Emily begins running with a richer crowd, and Luke develops some troubling habits. Has something truly life-shattering come between them, or is there still hope? By the end of the film, one side of that coin will clearly have won out over the other.
Both Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor are excellent here, leaning into the best and worst of their respective characters. Ehrenreich’s character has a bigger and more tragic arc, but Dynevor has the more lived in role. Their early chemistry, as well as their arguments, feel almost uncomfortably real. Eddie Marsan is fine, though it’s mostly a one note performance. Sia Alipour, Buck Braithwaite, Geraldine Somerville, and Rich Sommer help round out the cast, but it’s all about Dynevor and Ehrenreich.
Filmmaker Chloe Domont impressively depicts the mountain tension between this couple. Her confidence as a storyteller is evident, even in small scenes. Domont’s script speeds through some of the early moments that show chinks in the couples’ armor, but her direction fills in some of those blanks. Fair Play wants to focus on the growing bitterness, but it’s just as effective when it’s willing to get a bit dirtier.
Fair Play has been purchased for a pretty penny by Netflix out of Sundance, and it’s easy to see why. This is the sort of drama that has little hints of an erotic thriller to it, perfect for viewing at home. It’s smart, it’s sexy, it’s angry, and it has something to say. Even if there are a few warts on it, what more can you ask for out of a film like this?