Erotic thrillers are becoming one of Netflix’s staples and Fair Play is one that has teeth. Directed and written by Chloe Domont, Fair Play chronicles a relationship under the pressure of working together but one where the man is the one at a lower status when it comes to salary and title in the same workplace as his fiancee. As insecurities erupt, the audience sees the fallout.
Played by Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich, Emily and Luke are a couple working at a cutthroat financial firm. Starting at the same level, the two have a loving relationship with steamy nights and mutual respect for each other built by working together. But when a coveted promotion at their firm opens, the once supportive exchanges between lovers begin to sour and twist into something more sinister.
Emily begins to change, becoming a woman who can be respected in a man’s world for her obvious survival with her new peers. But as she brings in bigger and bigger commissions, Luke shrinks. As the power dynamics irrevocably shift in their relationship, it leaves Luke feeling smaller and smaller and Emily more detached.
But when Emily starts prioritizing work more, Luke begins to turn his insecurities into daggers, picking fights and undercutting Emily’s position, even refusing to listen to her and endangering her position at work. As the two’s relationship devolves, director Chloe Domont captures the slow descent, zooming in on the crumbling pieces of this relationship as they crash to the ground.
Also starring Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, and Sebastian De Souza, Fair Play smashes egos together and revels in the breaking of these two individuals until ultimately picking Emily’s side in the back half of the film, and rightfully so. Emily is a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it and believes in her talent and intelligence to get it. Luke is the exact opposite, with the analyst role he’s in eating him from the inside out, accelerated when he realizes that maybe, just maybe, he isn’t really good at his job.
As a concept, Fair Play looks at gender dynamics in a space that should be safe from expectation. Your lover, your partner, whatever you decide to call them, is supposed to be a safe haven from the world. A place where you can come home and work together without your successes or your weaknesses being held against you. But to bear that weight, it takes two strong people with respect for each other, and in this film, that isn’t Luke and Emily. More specifically, that isn’t the ambitious and jealous Luke.
Fair Play is about a weak man unable to handle being in the shadow of the woman he loves. The uncomfortable crumbling of the relationship and Luke’s spiral into oblivion are like nails on a chalkboard. While the film is relatively tame and honestly paced in a boring way for the first act and a little into the second, once the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, it takes on a new life.
Thrilling, slightly terrifying, Luke, in his unhinged spiral and inability to handle his own insecurities, breaks Emily down and attempts to pull her down in his cowardice. But Emily pushes back every single time, coming in meaner than he did. She maintains her power no matter how often Luke comes at her throat until she doesn’t.
The film’s use of physical intimacy isn’t just to push the genre of erotic thriller but to use it to show the audience where the pair is in their relationship. In the beginning, it shows their love and, ultimately, Luke’s devotion to making Emily happy, no matter the circumstance. That twists into impotence when Emily’s bedroom talk seems to be telling Luke what to do, digs deep at his insecurities, and then it twists into violence. The last scene starts as consensual intimacy turns into assault in an unsettling encapsulation of what their relationship has become and Luke taking power in the only way he knows that he can, physically.
Fair Play’s ending is frustrating, as Emily is violated. Still, Domont’s ability to use assault as a story element is something that a male director could not do. With an element of revenge that strikingly takes her power back in the last minutes of the film, Emily comes out on top.
As a whole, Fair Play is a film with tonal shifts that aren’t always executed well. That said, once it finds its footing it’s a stark and uncomfortable look at a deteriorating relationship that races toward an unhinged uncertainty that pays tension off.
Fair Play is streaming now, exclusively on Netflix.
Fair Play is a film with tonal shifts that aren’t always executed well. That said, once it finds its footing it’s a stark and uncomfortable look at a deteriorating relationship that races toward an unhinged uncertainty that pays tension off.