Roger Ebert Home

Fair Play

After its splashy debut at Sundance in January led to a pricey acquisition by Netflix, Chloe Domont’s high finance romantic thriller “Fair Play” finally made its international debut at TIFF. The (mostly) two-hander, about the implosion of a secret relationship between two hedge fund analysts, has lost none of its urgency in the interim, largely because of a barn burner of a performance from Phoebe Dynevor and writer/director Domont’s impregnable vision.

We first meet Dynevor’s Emily, an analyst at a cutthroat New York financial firm, with her back turned to the jubilant attendees of a party. She’s out on a cold ledge alone, smoking a cigarette. Quickly, she’s joined by Luke (the always alluring Alden Ehrenreich), her co-worker and covert live-in lover. He whisks her into the party—his brother’s wedding—where his uncle calls her the “prettiest girl in the room,” then dashes off before Luke can say she’s much more than that. Emily is clearly not comfortable in this world, but her chemistry with Luke is off the charts. Before long, they’re in the bathroom having sex, her menstrual blood staining their wedding clothes. A ring tumbles out of his pocket, a hasty engagement is made, and their passion ignites.

The next day, the two awaken on their apartment floor, where they landed after more lovemaking. It’s 4:30 a.m., and the two are in lockstep as they prepare for the day, making coffee, getting dressed in their perfectly fitting power suits (and Em’s six-inch heels), only parting ways as they head to the train, a tactic to hide their relationship—which is against company policy—from the rest of the office. They’re equals at the firm, ambitious analysts, hungry for a promotion. When one of the portfolio managers quits in a theatrical and physical rage that results in a call to security, they’re both eager to take his place. Em hears a rumor it will be Luke, but when the opposite comes true, their carefully calculated careers—and romance—slowly go off the rails. 

With subtle changes in dialogue and striking visual cues, Domont’s tightly structured script and deft direction show this relationship’s eventual total destruction. When Em is first called up at 2 a.m. to learn the news of her promotion, Luke stays up until she returns, worried she may have been assaulted. Later, he turns this on its head, accusing her of sleeping to the top. That first morning, the lovers were entwined as they slept together; in the next, they sleep rigidly in their beds, then Em alone on the couch, until one morning, Luke is nowhere to be found. Their rift becomes a literal chasm. 

Scattered throughout "Fair Play" are breadcrumbs about Em and Luke's economically divergent backgrounds. They’re both Ivy Leaguers, but she’s from Long Island and got there through a scholarship. Once she entered the job market, she had to field sexism in ways Luke would never understand. Until he starts to weaponize this very sexism to undermine her. When Luke takes a course by a motivational speaker who barely hides his misogynistic techniques, he uses his newfound tools to take her down a peg. At one point, Luke says she dresses “like a cupcake,” a neg that needles her to start second-guessing not only her wardrobe but her business instincts as well.

Although they can both technically do this job and are equally committed to doing the work, it’s clear early on that her instincts, coupled with her work ethic, make her a better employee. And yet Luke clings to a sense of entitlement as if he’s owed this job and this life because he’s wanted it so badly for so long. This kind of entitlement is a luxury for Em, who has worked her ass off for as long as she can remember.

Along with her insightful examination of office politics and sexism, Domont also explores the dynamics at play in their relationship sexually. At first, their passion and carnal lust are equal; they’re partners in each other’s pleasure, with Luke going down on Em. But as her star rises at work, his resentment manifests in impotence, later in the power of withholding sex, and finally in force. Though the metaphor is occasionally heavy-handed, it's effectively employed to show how male violence is weakness, not strength.

Ehrenreich tackles Luke’s arc from supportive partner to maniacal foe with aplomb, but this is Dynevor’s film from start to finish. Her strength comes mostly from her reserve in public, only letting Luke see the looser her. But as the stress at work and home mounts, she must find ways to charm all the men in her life—without ever letting them know it. 

Throughout most of the film, Dynevor holds her body rigid, towering in her sleek yet uncomfortable heels, only allowing her emotions to show in brief flashes of anger, joy, or stress across her face. This control over her expressions becomes harder as Luke’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Yet, even as she projects one version of herself, Dynevor's breakout performance shows the strain that this double identity takes on her through just a deep breath here, a hidden look of sorrow there, or a slight tremble in her response to a co-worker. 

Em eventually lets loose in a fiery speech and scene that borrows heavily from the George Cukor classic “Gaslight,” starring Ingrid Bergman. Fans of that film that has launched a million misinterpretations will enjoy Domont’s steady grasp on how the phrase is not just rooted in a generic manipulation of someone’s reality but also the power dynamics of a couple and their private and public perceptions. Domont’s homage, in dialogue and blocking, is far more earned than most modern evocations of the term (which is, interestingly, never uttered in "Fair Play"). 

Domont’s perfectly calibrated script occasionally veers into the overly theatrical, its grand monologues and rigid back-and-forth dialogue not helped by the film’s limited and repetitive settings. However, her thrilling mastery of slow-burn tension, insightful examination of power dynamics in business and personal relationships, and creation of exceptional performances prove Domont to be a director with a singular voice.

This review was filed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. "Fair Play" will be in theaters on September 29th and available on Netflix on October 6th. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

Now playing

Dusk for a Hitman
Boy Kills World

Film Credits

Fair Play movie poster

Fair Play (2023)

Rated R for pervasive language, sexual content, some nudity, and sexual violence.

113 minutes


Phoebe Dynevor as Emily

Alden Ehrenreich as Luke

Sebastian de Souza as Rory

Eddie Marsan as Campbell

Rich Sommer as Paul

Geraldine Somerville as Emily's Mother

Sia Alipour as Arjun

Jim Sturgeon as Uncle J

Jamie Wilkes as Quinn






Latest blog posts


comments powered by Disqus