Fifteen-Love review: Ella Lily Hyland is a standout in tennis drama

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It’s a career path that, unless you’re in it, you won’t know too much about. Of course, with the help of documentaries such as Break Point or Gods of Tennis, those of us who aren’t as inclined to pull off a successful underhand serve can start to glean an idea of the infamous on-court battles and current state of the sport. But in this drama, we get a bird’s-eye view into the elitism, wealth and privilege that can come with being in this established world.

Ella Lily Hyland in Fifteen-Love

Ella Lily Hyland in Fifteen-Love. Prime Video

The series opens with a look at one of the highs of Justine Pearce’s (Ella Lily Hyland) tennis career: The French Open. It’s clear to see that she’s a star and commands the attention of the court, as any confident sportsperson should. But after suffering a devastating career-ending injury, we then follow her five years on as she numbs thoughts of doubt and anger with a heady tonic of alcohol, clubbing and impulsive behaviour.

She cringes at old posters of herself, rolls her eyes at the mention of her former coach and seems to float into her job as a physiotherapist with the kind of blasé attitude she approaches much of her life with. But when she comes face-to-face with her former coach, Glenn Lapthorn (Aidan Turner), she is also confronted by memories of the past.

It’s then that Justine makes a serious and life-altering allegation against Glenn, forcing her family, tennis peers and friends to reflect on the pair’s intense relationship. Many are left to wonder whether she’s telling the truth, stating that she has a history of lying or exaggerating the truth.

It’s uncomfortable ground for the drama to tread but it’s within this seriously tricky path to navigate that much of the series gets swallowed up by something you don’t want a drama about sexual misconduct to be concerned with: doubting the person who’s making the allegation.

While many of the staff at Longwood – Justine’s former tennis academy and her place of work – don’t know what to believe, the viewer is also taken on this journey of distrusting Justine and not being entirely sure whether she’s manipulating the facts and those around her.

Sure, I suppose a drama about such heavy topics needs to assess all sides of the case and present all of the evidence – it’s that flicker of suspicion that drives the series forward, just like ITV’s Liar. But the drama, which feels like it allows tennis to have its #MeToo moment, also wastes some of its time in residual plots and characters rather than delve into some of its heavier themes head-on.

While the series may want to illustrate this elite sport, its #MeToo moments and its treatment of young women, Fifteen-Love feels rushed when it comes to all of those things. Further character development and exploration wouldn’t allow for questions to linger at the end of the series but, unfortunately, you can’t help feeling as though many of the people in the series continue to be unknowable.

Aidan Turner in Fifteen-Love

Aidan Turner in Fifteen-Love. Prime Video

It’s this lack of detail in the writing of the series that also means that the major heavy themes that underpin this series – consent, power, trust – aren’t fleshed out as much as they should be. When it comes to five years after the act, Justine is as confused as those around her about the meaning of her relationship with Glenn. But when it’s an interaction that is centred on an unfair power dynamic, there needs to be more done to truly explore that.

Nonetheless, Fifteen-Love is a meaty drama filled with emotive performances from the likes of Hyland, who shines in this six-parter.

Her portrayal as someone deeply conflicted, confused and exploited echoes throughout each episode as we see her struggle with the impact of those feelings five years on. Hyland’s change in demeanour from being a naive 17-year-old to a head strong 22-year-old woman battling for women’s voices to be heard is a palpable shift and helps to create much of the onscreen tension that this series relies on.

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If you need a reason to tune in, Hyland’s confident lead character is reason enough, but Turner similarly captivates as the instantly dislikable and know-it-all coach who seems to have everything he could’ve ever wanted, from the fancy house to the beautiful family. His ability to turn his naturally endearing on-screen presence into something more sinister is something you continually underestimate, forming part of the unknowable nature of his character.

Their onscreen chemistry and constant butting of heads is very watchable, even if you don’t know the intricacies of their relationship. You really tune into a cat-and-mouse drama like this for its leads, and Hyland and Turner are divisive in their own ways but equally as endearing to watch.

You may not entirely know what each episode is building up to, but eventually the truth of what happened between Justine and Glenn five years ago is revealed in a finale that is arguably all too quick.

While it has its faults, Fifteen-Love is an undeniably strong drama that will pull you in for each episode. And let’s face it, it’s nice to see a topical, relevant and well-acted drama that explores a world not many of us know a lot about.

Fifteen Love will air on Prime Video on 21st July 2023 – try Prime Video for free for 30 days.

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