King Richard – 2021 BFI London Film Festival Review

King Richard, 2021

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring Will Smith, John Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Layla Crawford, Daniele Lawson, Christopher Wallinger and Chase Del Rey

King-Richard

SYNOPSIS:

A look at how tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams became who they are after the coaching from their father Richard Williams.

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Following his turn in Michael Mann’s underrated Ali, and NFL head-trauma drama Concussion, Will Smith completes his awards chasing sports biopic hattrick by embodying the controversial character of Richard Williams. A man who for so long appeared to overshadow the excellence of his game-changing GOAT daughters, and with King Richard is seemingly adding backspin to what should be their own biopic by stealing their shot once again.

Take a second-serve at that preconception though, because this story is executive produced by Venus and Serena, and although Will Smith delivers one of, if not the performance of his career, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are every bit his equal as the inspirational Williams sisters in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s terrific film.

Taking it back to the concrete streets and tennis courts of Compton, King Richard paints the picture of a loving family, with five sisters who finish each others sentences, a mother who works two jobs, and a father who stubbornly believes that his daughters will become superstars. He touts them around the affluent, ignorant white-faced tennis clubs of California, where he maintains positivity in the face of prejudice and dismissals, while in his own back yard he stands up to the threat of local gangs catcalling his underage daughters.

This doesn’t make Richard any kind of hero though, largely because he isn’t an easy man to like, which is a difficult sell when you have one of the most charismatic actors playing him, but it’s something Smith achieves with aplomb. The façade of this domineering presence is forced to slip, especially in the face of his wife, played by the exceptional Aunjanue Ellis, who calls him out on numerous occasions, particularly during a stellar heated exchange between her and Smith towards the end of the movie, which is more thrilling than any of the tennis recreations.

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Smith may be the draw, and he is exceptional, especially during a couple of scenes in which he has to show a more fallible side to his character, but King Richard, much like the Williams family itself, is definitely an ensemble effort. Of the two sisters, Venus is the more prominent, as she was the one pushed by Richard from the start, largely driven by financial reasons, and as such Saniyya Sidney is given more to do.  Her chemistry with Demi Singleton emanates from the screen, a combination of admiration and potential resentment, the latter bringing a stoicism to the role of Serena that echoes into what we know of the 23-time Grand Slam winning champion. She shares a scene with a grandstanding Smith in which she barely says a word, but acts him off the court. However, it’s Sidney who shines brightest, depicting a confident, rounded young role-model in the image of her father, but one who’s not afraid to do things her own way, whether that’s confiding in her coach (a film-stealing, tache sporting Jon Bernthal) or letting her guard slip in a moment of celebration, it’s an infectious performance befitting of the woman she’d become.

There are minor gripes, such as the way the film can’t seem to decide how it wants to depict Richard, which results in moments like a rather strange scene where he attempts to exact revenge on one of the men who has been harassing his daughter, only for those darker recesses of his character never to be revisited again. The tennis sequences also go on a bit too long, although they are few and far between, so those who can’t tell a double fault from an ace won’t be too put out.

Like turning up expecting a lightweight exhibition match, only to end up with an emotional grand slam of a movie, King Richard is a winner largely thanks to the performances of Sidney, Singleton, and a never-better Will Smith.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★

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