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Film Review: King Richard

17 November 21 words: Jack Francis

Despite a strong lead performance from Will Smith, the Williams family biopic is incohesive and misguided...

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring: Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton
Running time: 138 minutes

In any discussions about King Richard, the overwhelming opinion you will hear is that Will Smith is at his triumphant best as the stubborn Richard Williams – father to two of the greatest athletes of all time. You will likely hear very little else because there simply isn’t much. King Richard paints an interesting picture of the Williams family, but it never quite seems true; while the movie itself struggles to decide what story it wants to tell.

Produced by both Serena and Venus, King Richard offers the story of Richard Williams and his bullish determination to take his daughters from the streets of Compton, California all the way to the top of the tennis world. But while the film paints Williams as a man obsessed with one goal, he’s always portrayed as a loving father. No flaring tempers with his daughters as he pushes them to be the best. It feels almost hermetically sealed, like the movie is too clean and polished for what was undoubtedly a challenging relationship in reality. 

This polished approach works in tandem with what we know – that hindsight is key with the tale of King Richard. The story has been inspirational to millions without a doubt, but its portrayal as something solely achieved through belief and conviction is perhaps misguided. Countless times we hear stories of child prodigies broken by the pressures imposed on them. It’s overtly referenced in the movie itself with the subplot focused on Jennifer Capriati – a tennis starlet that burnt out too fast before being arrested for drug possession. Yet King Richard never elaborates on what sets Richard apart from other overbearing parents or why his obsessive convictions are “better” than those of his counterparts, aside from he had the fortune to succeed.

Lands like a poorly hit serve and not the ace so many will have predicted

There is an identity issue with the portrayal of the key figure in King Richard, but the movie itself suffers from its own identity crisis. Part sports movie, part racial drama, part social commentary about life in Compton; King Richard throws itself into all these genres without ever settling on one. Before serving the audience with a meaty tennis montage, Richard Williams heads out with his handgun to bring down the man harassing his daughter, before said man is brought down by a gang-related drive-by shooting. This moment should feel instrumental; a harrowing reminder of his – and his daughters’ – environment, but it’s glossed over almost immediately. King Richard never expands on the consequences of this decision, instead it actively ignores it.

None of this is to say the movie doesn’t have some high notes. Smith is a force of nature when the script gives him moments to shine, like a highly charged scene with social services after a neighbour complains about his seemingly harsh treatment of his children. Jon Bernthal, who you likely know from shows like The Walking Dead or The Punisher and almost exclusively known for his brutish, violent characters, gives a wholly un-Bernthal performance as the off-beat tennis coach Rick Macci, endlessly clashing with the stubbornness of Williams. Saniyya Sidney has a chunky role as Venus, bringing plenty of innocence and grace, while Demi Singleton conveys the strength of character we’re so accustomed to from her real-life counterpart. And all of this is wrapped up in a superb recreation of Nineties clothing from short shorts to garish tracksuits. It isn’t enough to elevate King Richard to heights expected, however.

King Richard will be remembered for its titular performance, deservedly drawing Oscar buzz. The rest of the movie simply trudges along in its wake however, giving you little reason to invest yourself the way it so desperately wants you to. Weighed down by its own lack of identity, along with a soundtrack bloated with too many needle drops, King Richard lands like a poorly hit serve and not the ace so many will have predicted.

King Richard is in cinemas from Friday 19 December

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