Two market analysts have their secret romance put to the test when one of them is promoted over the other in this Sundance smash erotic thriller.
Netflix has provided a home for several mid-budget dramas since taking the leap into producing original content in 2011, from family dramas to those in the corporate world; the most recent example of the latter being Chloe Domont’s directorial debut feature Fair Play, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to glowing praise and a purchase by the streaming giant for 20 million dollars. The film is certainly more than deserving of its hefty price tag because it succeeds as a sharp erotic thriller with unsettling truths about relationship dynamics in our contemporary society, and driven by phenomenal performances from both its lead actors.
Fair Play follows Luke Edmunds (Alden Ehrenrich) and Emily Meyers (Phoebe Dynevor), two recently engaged lovers keeping their upcoming marriage a secret between themselves and select family members, as their relationship breaks policy for the Wall Street hedge fund where they both work as market analysts. They’ve kept up appearances for as long as they’ve worked together, but things take a complicated turn when their superior is fired. Emily hears a rumor that Luke is due for the lucrative advancement that comes with being their new portfolio manager, only for the two to get rocked with a surprise from their boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan): the promotion is Emily’s.
Luke is initially happy for his fiancée, but Emily finds herself quickly overwhelmed by the pressures to predict the right investment decisions that come with her new position, as well as navigating how to keep her romance with Luke a secret with their new dynamic in the office. But there’s something going on with her lover, too: beneath Luke’s cool demeanor are bubbling insecurities over being stuck as Emily’s professional underling that turns his romantic feelings for her into resentment that puts their engagement at risk of crumbling.
In her first feature film, Domont demonstrates great creativity through her direction of Fair Play, most notably through how she tells her story with audio. Sound effects of a given scene are woven brilliantly into the score to build a palpable tension, such as when Luke is working late as the sounds of his office’s computer servers and the janitor’s vacuum blend seamlessly into composer Brian McOmber’s ominous drone to convey Luke’s psychological downward spiral.
Fair Play is also aided by stellar performances from its lead actors. After the chaos that surrounded what was meant to be his franchise turn in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Alden Ehrenrich returned to the screen with a vengeance this year, here delivering the second of two dramatic turns this year following Oppenheimer in a role where his facial expressions leave audiences questioning Luke’s true feelings, while sharp line delivery cuts through his lover like a knife. But as Emily, Dynevor steals the show in a fiery breakthrough performance where she counters Luke’s bitterness with honest chemistry and conviction, communicating with her eyes a desire to give her fiancée every chance to be a good person until she can’t.
Domont’s knowledge of the high finance world has been apparent through her experience on shows like Ballers and Billions, and makes its presence felt on the pages of Fair Play’s script. Every scene in the office sees its characters speak with terminology unique to the world of their industry, while its cutthroat nature is established in an early instance where Luke and Emily’s supervisor reacts to being spontaneously fired on violent impulse, setting an uneasy tone for the rest of the narrative.
On that note, the character development of Luke and Emily feels natural and slow-building to its unnerving fever pitch of a conclusion. Both characters drown themselves in alcohol together until they’re doing it apart from each other, while Luke’s bruised ego sporadically comes out first by refusal of Emily’s sexual advances before it amounts to verbal abuse that gets deeper under her skin with every insult.
Meanwhile, holding onto newfound power along with her relationship with Luke gets more difficult for Emily by the scene. And yet, that’s also where Fair Play starts to falter, because it can’t seem to decide whether or not to portray Emily as blameless through her ordeal. She’s clearly an innocent woman swimming with sharks in a soulsucking industry, but there’s an interesting side to her backstory that the movie doesn’t explore as much as Luke’s fall into masculine monstrousness. It’s also worth noting that while the film looks slick with high contrast shadows and moody cinematography which emphasizes the darkness that comes with their line of work, these storytelling techniques are too familiar to be visually unique in this genre.
But the film still has a haunting message about the consequences of power and the fragility it brings to relationship dynamics, and Fair Play gets its point across in beguiling, intense fashion. Audiences will be wowed by the steam of the film’s early intimate moments, be gripped by the twists and turns of Luke and Emily’s psychological and professional journeys, and be shocked when the powder keg between the two finally explodes. It’s a provocative film in a genre Hollywood often neglects, and that’s why audiences should give Fair Play a fair chance.