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MOVIES: King Richard - Review



Everyone who knows even vaguely anything about Tennis will have heard of the names Venus and Serena Williams before, even as someone who doesn’t follow the sport religiously, I was aware of what they’d done – a man who I knew less about was Richard Williams, their father, who meticoulsly planned their entire careers from a young age, as they followed a path that few Tennis players take – and broke onto what was then predominantly all-white sport with clear designated pathways for every Tennis player to follow, designed to cut out those from less privileged backgrounds.

Reinaldo Marcus Green focuses on Richard for much of the movie – this is a biopic of him, after all, not his daughters – although they do come into play much later on in the second half of the film, and it’s a good character study of Richard that establishes his motivation, clear self-structure and flaws to make him a well-rounded figure that doesn’t always feel one-dimensional in the same way that real-life figures often do when they are adapted with the consent of family members – both Venus and Serena are producers on King Richard, as is Will Smith – and the film feels designed to showcase just how involved their father was on shaping their careers when they were both very young. Richard is the kind of guy who will make the characters rewatch Cinderella because they didn’t learn the “right” lessons from it on the first go, he’ll make the girls train in the pouring rain, and he even threatens to drive off and leave them behind while they're buying drinks for not being humble after a win. It makes it distinctively clear from the start that this is not a Venus and Serena biopic as the title suggests - and those going in expecting such will be let down.

King Richard falls into all the same traps as every other feel-good inspirational sports movie of the last few years – shaped in Rocky’s image (few sports movies aren't - although there's even a moment in the score that reminded me of Bill Conti's soundtrack), it’s inspirational, a clear crowd-pleaser and will likely be a favourite of many - but also heavy handed in the same way that The Trial of the Chicago 7 was, relying on the actors to get the most out of the half-hearted lines the characters are given. The script is the weak link that really lets this film down – and it’s a testament to the brilliance of Will Smith, in one of his career-best performances, that he’s able to elevate everything here along with his talented co-stars. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Oracene ‘Brandi’ Williams at the time of the movie has almost been forgotten about in Oscar conversations but is excellent making the most out of every scene she’s been in – there’s a crucial scene when Oracene calls out Richard on holding the girls back in the third act that’s devastating in the way that it’s framed. These emotionally investing moments are designed with the instinct purpose of sending you on a rollercoaster ride and the film absolutely succeeds in doing that – it’s capable of moving you from worry, to tears and then to happiness.

Out of the two actors who play Venus and Serena, Sainyya Sidney is a rising star, and Demi Singleton does a brilliant job with a smaller number of lines and screentime afforded to her. Serena has to spend most of the events of the film standing in the shadows waiting for her turn – and Singleton portrays that torn sense of feelings between wanting the best for Venus and wanting to have her own turn brilliantly, so when that she finally does – the audience cares deeply about Serena without being forced to have the two ever once pitted against each other.

The musical choices in this film are used early on before it gives way to its natural score from composer Kris Bowers, and the heavy hitters like Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, are employed to not-so-subtle effect in a montage that sees the Williams family move in an RV at the midpoint of the film from Compton to California, where they will begin their training under Jon Bernthal’s Rick Macci. Much of the early part of the film is Richard trying to get his daughters to play for free – with the promise of a cut of their earnings later. This series of events maybe bogs the pacing of the film down as it happens one too many times – it didn’t need to be 145 minutes long and feels that way occasionally, but it does reward audiences in King Richard’s latter stages. Bernthal is laid back but ultimately clashes with Richard over his methods – a source of late-game conflict that doesn’t really go into as much depth as the film could have done.

If you’re a fan of the feelgood sports movie drama - and enjoyed films like 2017's Battle of the Sexes, King Richard will be right up your street. It’s inspirational. It’s ultimately hard to hate – it may be shallow but it’s very easy to like and be won over. Whilst the pacing can drag, you’ll never be bored, especially once it truly gets going – and it’s easy to see this film playing well at the Oscars this year. At the moment Smith is the favourite, and based on the sheer strength of his performance here, he deserves to be.

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