Some people are capable of mind-boggling levels of belief. Martyrs epitomise this, for the courage it would take to believe that much is truly incomprehensible. But stories of unwavering certainty don’t always end so tragically. Some are simply beautiful and uplifting, yet baffling in just as many ways. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s latest feature King Richard tells one such story, and it just so happens to be about the father of two of the greatest and most famous tennis players of all time, Venus and Serena Williams (Saniyya Sidney & Demi Singleton).
Upon King Richard’s announcement, people were confused about why the film would be about Richard Williams (Will Smith) and not his massively successful and inspirational daughters. The answer there is simple: their stories are ongoing, and beyond even that, the final product is just as much about the sisters as it is their father, and it even adds their just as brilliant mother Brandi (an excellent Aunjanue Ellis).
We first meet the pair as children in the streets of Compton training solely under the tutelage of their parents. It’s a rough atmosphere seeing Richard often in harm’s way to protect all five of his daughters. But none of that matters to him, because Richard has a plan designed to summit Venus and Serena atop the sporting pantheon and into the realm of immortality. So, we follow everything he lays out to an ending we know is coming, yet it works.
Richard believes in his plan to a fault, so much so that it’s what drives the entire family’s day to day life. Training is a family affair with all five sisters coming out to help Serena and Venus hone their craft — because there’s no one left at home to watch them, and the inconvenience is a small price to pay. The sheer amount of drive he puts upon them quickly dawns an intense realisation: had the sisters failed, this would have been far too much pressure to put on children. But they didn’t, and recalling this is what gives this film its greatest strengths. It’s almost like he really knew. That God granted otherworldly clairvoyance to him, and he simply knew his daughters would be great. And as farfetched as this is, and as heavy-handed as the script can be with it, Smith’s work is so powerful he makes it believable.
Smith has rarely failed to display his raw talent in his now long-spanning career, yet he delivers what might be his finest performance ever in King Richard. From the tennis courts to their crowded home, Smith dominates the screen with Richard’s enigmatic presence, a presence devoted to displaying the pure love a man can have for his daughters.
Where some issues arise is in the formulaic approach. Green isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; he’s not trying much at all. For the most part, he’s happy to get by on the tried and tested biopic format, and it can get frustrating at times. It’s particularly disappointing when recalling he utilised the same approach when blundering his last film, Joe Bell. But ultimately, King Richard is a testament to the old format because it proves once again that it still works. For every unintentional echo of another film in the same vein, Green produces a singularly poignant moment for the sisters.
It’s these heart-warming moments that make King Richard so worthwhile. There may be a lot of films made like this one, but there aren’t many stories out there like it, so it remains irresistibly evocative. The only similar tale coming to mind is told in Rachel Griffith’s Ride Like a Girl, a picture with similar drawbacks that manages to get by on the remarkable true story.
King Richard is the crowd-pleaser of the year. It may be a little too happy to exist in the realm of the classic biopic formula, but the story and the central performance are both too great to overlook.
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