As much as King Richard has all the trappings of a biopic – and a sports drama, for that matter – it’s a testament to everyone involved that it manages to entirely transcend expectation and feel like something that’s so much more.
It’s easy to wax lyrical about the fact that we’re getting a film about Richard Williams before one centring on his famous daughters, Venus and Serena Williams, but with their involvement as producers it’s obvious that this love letter to his purposeful ambition and oft bullishness is just as much their movie as it is his.
As Richard, Will Smith delivers his finest performances in decades. Not a physically transformative performance per se – this isn’t a Charlize Theron in Monster type situation – but more an immersive turn that lends him an air of normality, he lives and breathes Richard’s vocal pattern and unmatched confidence. To say Richard is a frustrating character would be putting it lightly too, with his “helicopter training” method seemingly hurting his daughters’ chances of advancing through the ranks of junior championships, though, for the most part, this is a tactic both Venus and Serena adhered to.
As much as this is a movie about Richard, Venus and Serena Williams are given just as much showcase, with both Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton delivering beautifully naturalistic turns as two sisters whose genuine talent never outshines their humanity and love for one another; Sidney and Singleton feel like genuine siblings throughout. If there’s anyone who runs the risk of stealing the film away from its titular subject and his dominating offspring though, it’s Aunjanue Ellis as Brandi Williams, mother and wife, who mostly exerts a quiet power before she makes her presence more than known when Richard, believing he knows best, pushes her to where she asserts that her silence should not be mistaken for compliance.
Clearly feeling more confident detailing narratives that address racial issues over that of sexuality, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, whose last effort was the much maligned Joe Bell, doesn’t push the subject, more so letting it bubble underneath many of the plot’s actions, with Richard’s door-breaking temperament in a predominantly white industry all the more powerful due to its subtle aggression.
What so easily could have been a showy, melodramatic feature that aims for Oscar clips over a cohesive story, King Richard, as few a wild swings it takes, is a gorgeously captured drama – Robert Elswit‘s cinematography is wonderfully lush – that feels comfortable aiming to please the crowd without pandering to the simplicities of such a genre. Sure, there’s no reinventing the wheel, but Green’s film enjoys basking in its own glow, winning its audiences over without talking down to them.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
King Richard is screening in Australian theatres from January 13th, 2022.
King Richard was originally reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2021 AFI Film Festival.