This review was originally published during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
If there were ever a quintessential young and passionate in-love couple, it would be Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich). During the opening moments of writer/director Chloe Dormont’s Fair Play, they attend a wedding and try to sneak off to a bathroom for a little alone time. At that moment, a ring slips out of Luke’s pocket, and through joy (and embarrassment), Chloe accepts. It seems like we are off to marital bliss. However, capitalism, the animalistic feeding frenzy of corporate greed, and the patriarchal encampment in which it exists will do a number on any relationship.
Emily and Luke work at One Crest Capital as analysts. The nature of the job (and HR decree) is that they must keep their relationship a secret while in the office. Little, discreet flirtations aside, they both keep on a business-as-usual face. This is until a manager at the hedge fund goes ballistic as he’s notified of his firing. Of course, everybody is gunning for this opening, but Emily is sure Luke will get it. That’s until their boss, Campbell (Eddie Marsan), chooses Emily.
This won’t bring about any tension, right? Any rational significant other would be happy for their spouse's ascent, devoid of ego. Well, not so much. Dormont’s film examines all the complexities of power structures about one set of people. It could be one thing to a person if they lost out on promotion through simple osmosis. However, Luke now reports to Emily, and Dormont shows both characters' reactions when they know this arrangement. Emily is, at first, highly remorseful and almost frightened to tell Luke. When Luke finds out from her, he congratulates her, but it’s rooted in an inner disappointment.
Ehrenreich doesn't overly show his cards from an emotional standpoint. Instead, you see it a lot in Luke’s facial expressions and muted responses (at least at first). As Fair Play goes on, his paranoia and disdain grow into resentment. From Emily’s standpoint, she has to contend with not only the culture in which she’s a lone woman in a high-ranking position in a predominately male office, but also her spouse’s shattered sense of manhood. It’s a balancing act that comes back to bite her in various instances.
When Emily strives to leverage her position to help Luke, the higher-ups tell her they don’t think he’s good enough. Luke also tries to pressure Emily to close a deal that costs the company millions. At some point, Emily has to rely on the instincts that got her to that position, which might mean creating a farther distance in her home life. Dormont places this modern story of (much overdue) changes in the business world within a high-pressure occupation where the gift of gab and gut calls are paramount. Why can’t Luke just be happy for Emily and be her support system?
To answer that question, you have to take a hard look at the structure in which Fair Play exists. One Crest Capital is a breeding ground for all underhanded power plays for workers to stay afloat at the job they are expected to fail. Thus, there is more emphasis on thinking with coldness rather than empathy. Emily has to play the game – resulting in going out for drinks with her bosses and a night on the town at a strip club with the boys. No matter how far the “locker room” talk goes, she has to grin and bear it.
On the other hand, this rips open a large wound of insecurities for Luke. He goes from accusing Emily of sleeping with her boss on multiple occasions and reminding her that “she’s not one of the boys.” A lot of this feels like it’s going down an inevitable path of destruction because it is.
This constant sandwich between gaslighting and various forms of abuse eventually causes Emily to erupt (and justifiably so). Inside Emily is a rebellion in which love and ambition can’t exist side-by-side. It’s not that they can’t, but perhaps not with the man she can no longer recognize. The fact that he didn’t get the initial promotion isn’t a fault of Emily, but rather his lack of understanding at his job. Only so much one person can take in the face of elevated jealousy. Fair Play adequately asked how functional that assembly can be if one woman can disrupt a whole ecosystem.