“I’m so happy for you,” mutters Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) barely able to suppress the incredulity that his fiancée has been promoted over him; it’s a job he’s coveted all his career, to the point where he believes he’s almost entitled to it.
Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) also couldn’t bring herself to break the news to him, but once she does, a nervous, hesitant hug ensues, and sets into motion this cracking drama on gender dynamics and power play at the workplace.
Just a couple of days ago, a steamy (but secret) affair between the two had resulted in Luke proposing to Em at his brother’s wedding; their chemistry is off the charts — be it supporting each other’s careers or having wild sex — and it’s clear they are madly in love with each other. Both of them are financial analysts who work at a high-stakes hedge fund, equals in the present, but everything changes when one of their bosses gets fired in a dramatic display of how cut-throat their corporate jungle can be (fans of Mickey Down and Konrad Kay’s superb British drama Industry will enjoy this).
Em hears a rumour that Luke is in running to get the position, and this fuels their passion further, but the duo spectacularly — in a riveting slow-burn — spirals off the rails when their head honcho Campell (an imperious Eddie Marsan) makes Emily the portfolio manager instead. Worse, he informs her that Luke is next on the chopping block.
Director: Chloe Domont
Cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan
Duration: 113 minutes
Storyline: An unexpected promotion at a cutthroat hedge fund pushes a young couple’s relationship to the brink, threatening to unravel far more than their recent engagement
We see where this is heading, and yet, writer-director Chloe Domont (Ballers, Billions), in her debut feature, masterfully keeps us guessing as to when Luke will finally implode. It makes for fascinating viewing, and Ehrenreich is in fine form as his character slowly reveals layers upon layers of subtle resentment, as both romantic and sexual equations between the couple take a deep nosedive.
But it’s Phoebe Dynevor (known previously for Bridgerton) who shines brightest in a rousing star-making turn, cloaking Emily’s sharp persona with a delicate vulnerability that charms everyone around her. Dynevor perfectly captures Em’s reluctance in getting used to the expensive outfits and uncomfortable high heels that come with getting promoted — not to mention the late-night drinks and strip club outings with her male colleagues — but she still relies on her quick instincts and work ethic to climb up the ladder… and stay there. Luke is the only person she lets her guard down with back in their shared apartment, and he’s increasingly aghast at how perfectly she’s playing the game.
Luke’s fragile alpha male ego suffers at the office as well when he’s made to report to Emily; he signs up for a course with a misogynistic motivational speaker, and uses these techniques to rattle his partner’s new-found confidence. Several malice-filled taunts later, this battle of the sexes finally reaches breaking point, and Luke’s true sexist colours emerge, as he blatantly accuses (after insinuating earlier) Em of sleeping her way into the boardroom.
The third act doesn’t quite deliver what it promises; the urgency in the plot suddenly loses focus, and the over-dramatisation of the final showdown mar what could have been a glorious return to form for the corporate erotic-thriller genre (you can’t help but think of Basic Instinct). Still, the exceptional cast and Domont’s slick portrayal of office politics and personal relationships makes this time bomb tick right till the very end.
Fair Play is currently streaming on Netflix