Fair Play: this stormy, bitter office thriller doesn’t pull its punches

Though its gender commentary can veer towards the obvious, this dark dive into the perilous tides of a high-finance romance features some cutting observations.

Fair Play (2023)

The question of what something is worth – financially, professionally, romantically – is pushed to extremes in American filmmaker Chloe Domont’s debut feature Fair Play, a pacy workplace thriller fired up by sex and spite. Incisive and slick, with plenty of the stylings of prestige TV (it’s no surprise Domont’s previous directing credits include episodes of dramas such as Suits, 2019, and Billions, 2022), the film examines the incompatibility of fragile masculinity and career competition through the poisonous relationship of a young couple.

Emily (a compelling Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (an impressively stormy Alden Ehrenreich) work for the same hedge fund, where company policies force them to keep their relationship secret. Office machinations play out through snappy phone calls replete with financial jargon and impassioned glances across the room as stocks and shares rise or fall; the pair mostly keep their distance, taking different routes between work and home and leaving no hints of their love for each other. And supposedly they do love each other, with Luke’s marriage proposal at the beginning of the film a sign of their commitment even though, when they leave their apartment each morning, they barely bid one another goodbye. This professional coldness becomes personal when Emily is promoted instead of Luke and his battered ego sets him on a destructive path. Still, Dynevor and Ehrenreich’s chemistry is undeniable, even if, by the end of the film, their angry encounters are more memorable than their sexual ones.

Domont’s approach is much less interesting formally than narratively (unlike, say, Kitty Green’s 2019 office thriller The Assistant, in which the clinical colour palette and claustrophobic framing were key to the storytelling), but the decision to place this story of romance and sexual politics in the world of corporate finance is effective. With the stakes already so high, the atmosphere of tension around the couple is both grounded in reality and suitably dramatic. But it hinders Fair Play in some ways: films about women fighting for respect in the workplace, where sleazy colleagues swap frat bro stories at office drinks, feel a little dated since their 1980s heyday.

Where the film’s gender commentary grows more interesting is in the breakdown of Emily and Luke’s relationship. When Emily is promoted, the seemingly quintessential ‘nice guy’ (niceness made clear early in the film by his willingness to have sex with Emily while she’s on her period) reverts to cynically misogynistic arguments – that Emily must have slept with the boss, or that she’s merely a diversity hire. This is where Domont’s film finds its more enticing contemporary angle, by looking under the surface of Luke’s efforts to succeed in his work and relationship and exposing their rotten core. Before long, he’s buying into a leadership training package run by a quasi-Jordan Peterson figure whose book encourages him to “live by his own rules”.

Emily’s emasculation of Luke, at first accidental and later very much intentional, is handled even more adeptly as she provokes his own self-debasement, leaving him to inflict much of the damage himself. It’s her way of asserting herself – something Luke said she was incapable of doing. But she’s also spent a long time making herself smaller for the sake of men, and Domont is astute enough to let some of these habits reappear as Emily figures out this new landscape. She’s careful not to offer to pay for things for Luke, keenly aware of her new financial power over him, and she never lets her boss’s phone calls go unanswered, even in the early hours. This makes the thorniness of Emily’s position all the more interesting, as she assimilates into a circle of macho colleagues, and she emerges as not so much the expected hero of the film as a player fundamentally complicit in the toxicity of their world.

It’s a film that begins and ends with the sight of blood, a portrait of a world that encourages ruthlessness and eats up the meek. Bitterness becomes violence, and even when things turn darker towards the conclusion, the finale proves spikily satisfying rather than tonally jarring, its sinister edge neatly reiterating which way the balance of power has swung. Domont might have the male ego in her crosshairs, but in addressing the wider causes and effects of this misogynistic landscape, her impressive debut skilfully picks off broader targets, too. 

 ► Fair Play is in UK cinemas from September 29 and available to stream on Netflix UK from October 13.