When a film is centered on the cut-throat world of high finance and its roster of characters consists entirely of vicious uber-capitalists, it should come as no surprise when that film turns out to be difficult to like. This is the debilitating drawback of Fair Play (2023), a finely executed, otherwise commendable film, especially for its committed lead performances.
The drama starts innocently enough, as clandestine lovers Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) sneak a romantic rendezvous during a posh wedding. Why are they hiding their affair? Because it’s against company policy at the New York finance firm where they work as analysts. Their bubble of secret happiness bursts when a promotion opportunity materializes. Rumor has it the job is Luke’s, but when it instead goes to Emily, the power dynamic between them shifts precipitously, sending their relationship into a death spiral.
Fair Play has acting chops to burn, with Dynevor especially good as the ambitious climber whose deserved success is undermined by the double standards and toxic masculinity of her workplace—which extends, alas, to Luke, whose jealous disappointment sends him down a slippery slope. Writer/director Chloe Domont might have softened Emily’s personality to gain audience favor, but smartly refrains; instead, Emily slides comfortably into her new status, playing the game like the boys do—but with nonetheless different rules. This strengthens the film’s point, which is hammered home in its blunt but intense final moments. Ehrenreich more than holds up his end, effortless charm melting away scene by scene until there’s almost nothing left. The film looks good, escalates briskly, and boasts a small but fine supporting cast, with Eddie Marsan making the boldest impression as the couple’s cruel, sociopathic boss.
For all its strengths, though, it’s strangely hard to care about it, beyond a general appreciation of its powerfully delivered treatise on the lopsided gender dynamics of workplace success and prestige. Ultimately, the setting is just so, so nasty—the cruel, sexist firm, the winner-take-all callousness of the finance world, the blind privilege everywhere (faceless servants and unseen drivers hover on the periphery of the mise en scene, ever beyond notice). It all sells the point of the proceedings, but also sucks the emotional investment out of them. Either Emily or Luke could have improved their plight by cutting bait and leaving this deeply unhealthy environment behind…a solution that may just be too obvious to the viewer, who would be forgiven for following such a course of action. It’s tempting to say Fair Play is so good, it’s bad: a fine film in every respect, oddly achieving its aims so effectively that the viewing experience is fatally unpleasant.