Sundance Film Festival Review – ‘Fair Play’ is a Stressful Cautionary Tale Against Workplace Romances

Sundance Film Festival Review – ‘Fair Play’ is a Stressful Cautionary Tale Against Workplace Romances
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

People often meet the loves of their lives while working together. An office environment can be exactly the right place for a romance to begin and mature, but it can also be a toxic setting where ambition and ego run counter to the personal feelings people have for each other outside of work. There may also be rules against interoffice romances specifically because of their potential to wreak havoc on both business operations and outside relationships. Fair Play is the ultimate cautionary tale that shows how a power imbalance between two employees on the same level can quickly move towards uncontrollable chaos.

Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) have a memorable night out that ends in them getting engaged. The next morning, they wake up in their apartment and go to work separately since no one at their hedge fund knows that they are dating or living together. Emily overhears a rumor that Luke will be promoted to portfolio manager and excitedly shares the news with him, only to later learn that she is the one who is actually being put up for the job. That surprise shifts things considerably in their dynamic, especially since Luke is now reporting directly to Emily, who, in an effort to advocate for her fiancé’s future at the company, has learned that no one thinks much of Luke and expects him to quit eventually.

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Fair Play begins in a very sexual place, with the happy couple engaged in enthusiastic activity throughout the night of their engagement and once Luke believes he’s headed for greatness. But as soon as Emily is promoted instead, her sex drive remains but Luke’s is gone, and he repeatedly refuses her advances when she comes home looking to unwind and to leave work at the office. Luke’s jealously takes over, and it only makes things worse that his peers make frequent condescending comments about Emily within earshot of him, presuming that there’s a specific reason that the only woman in leadership managed to get the job over anyone else.

Fair Play demonstrates an all-too realistic setting in which women who are promoted to management roles are expected to laugh off rampant sexism and be “one of the boys.” When Emily makes a costly mistake, her boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan) lashes out with a vicious insult and then repeats it to make sure she heard him while a look of shock remains plastered on her face.

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He later jokingly apologizes, with his number two (Rich Sommer) expressing that a six-figure commission check for her latest play should more than make up for it. It’s a disturbing reality that would surely place blame on Emily rather than Luke were their relationship to come to light.

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This film paces itself well as an idyllic couple keeping an important secret quickly devolves. It is difficult to believe, however, that they could have gotten to this point with no one being aware of their HR-prohibited relationship, namely since they share a small New York City apartment that serves as their joint mailing address. Is it truly possible that they have never flirted within sight of another employee? Emily also texts her mother to tell her that she is engaged and doesn’t immediately emphasize that she cannot tell anyone, but is soon receiving congratulatory messages from people she doesn’t know, a dangerous threat to the secrecy of her relationship that couldn’t quite survive without absolute discretion from all who know.

Despite those logic questions, Fair Play benefits from a formidable lead performance from Dynevor. The actress best known for playing Daphne Bridgerton on the popular Netflix series fully commits to the role, making Emily someone set on impressing everyone she meets with her professional attitude but vulnerable to hurtful comments from her once-supportive fiancé. That drive to succeed isn’t entirely pure, and some of Emily’s action aren’t entirely defensible either. Ehrenreich presents Luke as a theoretically nice guy whose perspective changes in a rapid and harsh way when he’s no longer on the same level as the woman he wants to marry. Played out as a thriller, this film smartly breaks down the way in which even those who consider themselves supportive men can break down and transform completely when they don’t get what they want.

Grade: B

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Fair Play makes its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and has been sold to Netflix for $20 million.

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