KING RICHARD

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Stars: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal, Dylan McDermott, Kevin Dunn.

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No, this is not another adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s historical dramas about a tragically doomed historical figure, although the central character here is just as flawed and complex as any created by the playwright. Written by first time feature writer Zach Baylin, King Richard is part underdog sports drama and part biopic that follows a familiar formula and trajectory. It throws the spotlight onto Richard Williams, the father of two tennis prodigies and world champion tennis players – Venus and Serena Williams. However, with both Venus and Serena also credited as executive producers on the project, one suspects that the film has softened some of his more troublesome and darker character traits.  

The film explores Williams’s personality and his overbearing nature, his drive, eccentricities determined to change his family’s fortunes, and it also looks at the dynamics of the family. Richard had drawn up a detailed 78-point action plan to transform his daughters into tennis champions, even before they were born, and he was determined to carry it through. The plan set out his objectives and how to achieve them and took into consideration the preparation needed, the training required to prepare them for the rigours of the professional tennis circuit.  

The Williams lived in Compton, a predominantly black and impoverished suburb of Los Angeles, and at that time tennis was the preserve of wealthy white folk. With five daughters to feed, the Williams family struggle for money. Richard worked as a security guard at night while he continued to train his daughters on a tennis court in a local park that was a magnet for drug dealers and thugs. Williams sent videos of his daughters to a number of coaches before he enlisted the services of Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who had worked with the likes of Pete Sampras and the more volatile John McEnroe.  

Eventually he moved the family to the sunny climes of Florida where he placed the training in the hands of Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) to take them to the next level.  

The film however mainly focuses on Venus in whom Richard seemed to invest most of his energies, while his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) would take up the slack in training Serena. The film follows Venus up until the age of 14 when she played her first professional match against world champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and showed the world what she was capable of. A footnote tells us that Venus went on to win Wimbledon five times and became the first African American woman to be ranked number one in the world. Sister Serena went on the win 23 Grand Slams and is considered to be one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. 

After a couple of disappointing films with the dire sci-fi effort After Earth and Gemini Man, etc, Will Smith has finally found a decent role in a decent film. King Richard gives Smith one of his best roles in quite some time. As Richard Williams he delivers, arguably, his best performance since that other sports biopic with 2001’s Ali, and he inhabits the character and his flaws with a committed and nuanced performance. With his controlling personality the egotistical Richard is at times an unlikeable character, but Smith makes him more sympathetic and imbues him with a hint of vulnerability. But he also captures that single-minded sense of purpose that drove him.  

Newcomers Saniyya Sidney (Fences, etc) and Demi Singleton are good as the young tennis prodigies Venus and Serena respectively, while Sidney, in particular, stands out as Venus, capturing her strength, determination and deep affection for her father. And Ellis is also strong as the no-nonsense Oracene, who is more realistic and levelheaded and who is sometimes at odds with her husband’s stance. And Bernthal further demonstrates his versatility with a great turn as Macci.   

King Richard has been directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters And Men, etc), who adopts a fairly leisurely pace here and avoids the temptation to make the material too cheesy.  Baylin’s script gives us plenty of insights and little nuggets of information about the girls’ background, some of which we didn’t really know before. The film deals with themes of class, race, family, as well as providing a somewhat cynical look at the grinding world of professional tennis with its predatory agents, coaches, sponsors, big money, and egotistical players.  

There is some fine production design here which creates a superb contrast between the grittier environment of Compton and sunny Florida, and the film has been nicely shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit, who gives the material a glossy surface. 

King Richard is an inspirational underdog story and a feel good drama, however, the film runs for an unnecessarily bloated 144 minutes, and some of the tennis practice scenes with the sisters become a little repetitive. 

★★★ 

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