Producers: Tim White, Trevor White, Allan Mandelbaum, Ben LeClair and Leopold Hughes Director: Chloe Domont Screenplay: Chloe Domont Cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, Sebastian de Souza, Patrick Fischler, Sia Alipour, Brandon Bassir and Geraldine Somerville Distributor: Netflix
The sexes have battled in the workplace for decades, but neither Tracy and Hepburn nor Day and Hudson would recognize the bloodsport of Chloe Domont’s “Fair Play,” in which two ambitious strivers at a cutthroat Wall Street investment firm find their clandestine affair collapsing into vicious acrimony after one gets a promotion both aspired to.
Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are low-rung analysts at bottom-line-obsessed hedge fund One Crest Capital, run by an icily domineering business legend named Campbell (Eddie Marsan) and his oily second-in-command Paul (Rich Sommer). Emily and Luke have been living together in an apartment for some time (secretly, since doing so violates company policy), planning that he’ll eventually nab a promotion to portfolio manager that will put him directly under the two bosses and cement their joint future.
But once their current PM is canned, causing a raucously destructive scene as he’s tossed out of the building, Campbell hands the promotion to Emily in a late-night meeting at a bar instead, and though he feigns support, Luke’s insecurities eat away at him. The fact that he’d just proposed, in a scene of smolderingly animal passion fueled by alcohol in a bathroom at his brother’s wedding—and interrupted by an embarrassing monthly biological reality—only makes the situation worse, as do the snide suggestions of co-workers like snarky Rory (Sebastian de Souza) that Emily’s getting the promotion from Campbell when and where she did must have involved sharing something more than a drink.
But though Luke asks Emily whether Campbell hit on her, it’s not infidelity that really gnaws at him; it’s the realization that he’s been bested professionally—indeed, he’s now reporting to her with suggestions about what to buy and sell to enhance the firm’s portfolio. He’s especially persistent about a deal he identifies as a sure thing, but turns out to be a disaster, leading Campbell to dismiss his new protégé with an insult that, given current attitudes about the treatment of women, is shockingly brutal. Was Luke deliberately trying to sabotage Emily, or was the bad advice merely proof of his incompetence? Certainly Campbell and Paul don’t think much of his prospects with the firm, and when Emily tries to prop him up in their eyes, the effort has no effect. Indeed, their reaction indicates that he has no future at Crest, and as he becomes increasingly anxious to impress Campbell, his desperation becomes an embarrassment.
Things are even worse at home. Luke becomes withdrawn, giving himself over to the teachings of a self-help writer encouraging self-confidence and aggressiveness. Intimacy with Emily is distinctly secondary. Meanwhile she forces herself to bond with her all-male colleagues, even going to a strip club with them and enduring their macho banter. Emily and Luke finally break up, even as Emily’s intrusive mother (Geraldine Somerville) insists on throwing an opulent engagement party for them, which turns into a violent disaster when he shows up, after making a horrible scene at the office, and forces himself on her. In a final confrontation back at the apartment, Emily, who saves her position by lying to Campbell about their relationship, compels Luke to come to terms with what he’s become.
This is a steamy tale of smoldering jealousy in the brutal world of high finance, which proves a distinctly unhealthy environment for romance. It’s brought to white-hot life by bravura performances by Dynevor and Ehrenreich, and a coolly calculated turn by Marsan. It should prove career-making for Dynevor, whose work until now has primarily been in television and the Netflix series “Bridgerton,” and a career-restoring one for Ehrenreich, who has floundered since the disappointment of “Solo” in 2018; and it provides another juicy part for the suddenly ubiquitous Marsan. Under Domont’s skillful hand, the supporting players are kept mostly in the background, but both Sommer and de Souza shine as suitably slimy types. Ace work from the technical crew—production designer Steve Summersgill, cinematographer Menno Mans and costumer Kate Forbes—creates a world of shiny, metallic surfaces concealing the writhing human infighting constantly going on, while Franklin Peterson’s editing accentuates the knife-edge sharpness and Brian McOmber’s score effectively ratchets up the tension as the office wars heat up.
“Fair Play” is a pretty nasty piece of work, but it’s effective as a bitter portrait of how human relationships can fall victim to the forces of unrestrained ambition and greed.