Wednesday 16 February 2022

Film Review: King Richard

Will Smith puts in an Oscar-worthy performance as father and coach of legendary tennis players Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard.

King Richard is a classic rags to riches tale of a man on a mission, to inspire and coach his two gifted daughters on their journey from the streets of Compton to the centre court of Wimbledon. 

Venus and Serena Williams are stars known the world over; both have enjoyed more success than most on the court, with Serena in particular being considered the best female tennis player in history.

King Richard charts their humble beginnings in downtown Los Angeles. Their father Richard (Will Smith) and their mother Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) work all day and through the night to provide for Venus (Saniyya Sidney), Serena (Demi Singleton) and their three sisters. The Williams household is one of respect and discipline, and Venus and Serena are already on a trajectory toward tennis stardom when a respected coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) takes note of their talents.

Richard's plan is a simple one; Venus and Serena's success on the court, mustn't come at the expense of their education and their childhood. But Paul is set on pushing the girls onto the tour, keen to capitalise on their gift from the get-go...

Sports stories and biopics are a dime a dozen; what elevates King Richard above your usual humdrum Hollywood fare is Will Smith's committed, larger-than-life performance that he commits to with gusto and passion. He embodies the determination to climb, the strength against adversity, the sometimes uncompromising edginess that tips the scales into nastiness or spite. 

There are moments in the film where Richard is combative or prickly or obtuse. Maybe he's overcompensating or overreacting; Smith is able to pinpoint that nuanced emotion and nail it. 

Smith is one of those guys who blows hot and cold, mixing franchise or genre fare (Suicide Squad, Gemini Man) with the occasional character-driven drama (Concussion). But by my count, it's been sixteen years since the last time Smith put in a performance with this much heart and this much spirit, in 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness. Genuinely, this is as good as Smith has been in a long, long time – with a Golden Globe already under his belt and an Oscar nom too, he's been deservedly raking in the accolades for this role.

Across the board, the acting talent is excellent. Although the focus isn't on her, Ellis gets to square up to Smith and pitch this as more than a one-man show. Sidney and Singleton exude confidence as Venus and Serena too, capturing the poise and strength that would come to define their respective careers on the court.

The film hits all the right notes; the down-on-their-luck family from humble beginnings, the uphill struggle and prejudice faced on the road to glory, the peaks and troughs of competition. It's one of those feel-good pictures that melds touching character moments with stirring montage and a neat, satisfying three-act structure. It's not just a film about sport; there's commentary in here on class and race, which flows naturally from the Williams family stepping out of the hood and into the all-white tennis clubs. 

The cynical amongst might sneer and label King Richard little more than glossy Oscar bait. And maybe that's true; but it's slick, sincere and satisfying. Sometimes, that's all you need to hit the spot.

The Verdict: 8.5/10

Both a soaring sports film and a touching family drama, King Richard offers sincerity and spirit in spades. 

King Richard is in cinemas and on premium VOD now.

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