King Richard review: Will Smith is a true movie star – even with bags under his eyes

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·4-min read
King Richard review: Will Smith is a true movie star – even with bags under his eyes
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Dir: Reinaldo Marcus Green. Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal. Cert 12A, 138 minutes

In sporting drama King Richard, Will Smith dons the costume of an ordinary man. Decades of pricey skincare routines and regular facials are hidden beneath dark under-eye circles, the uniform of the poorly rested and emotionally tense. The shoulders are slouching. There’s a stiffness to his gait. All that is cool, or slick, or casual has been rolled up into a little ball and stuffed somewhere out of sight. Smith is playing a man who did not achieve greatness himself, but who helped usher it into being – Richard Williams, father to the two most famous tennis players of all time, Venus and Serena Williams.

Richard planned his daughters’ entire lives before they were even born, in an 80-or-so page manifesto. He was there with them, every day, practising on the court. He moved the family from Compton, California, to West Palm Beach, Florida, so that Venus and Serena could attend the famed tennis academy Rick Macci (played in the film by Jon Bernthal). And he was there when Venus made her professional debut, playing against world No 2 Arantxa Sánchez Vicario – which the film uses at its emotional climax.

But for all that transformation (there’s even a Louisiana accent in play), what actually makes Smith such a ferocious asset to King Richard is the one thing that couldn’t be scrubbed out. He is a true movie star in an age where there are diminishingly few – and with that comes a certain sense of command, a largeness to his presence that reaches beyond the confines of the film itself.

When Richard talks to Venus and Serena, here brought so beautifully and naturally to life by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, he speaks largely in morals and promises. “We’re not going to be like this forever,” he repeats to them, as he tucks his five daughters into bed in their Compton home. He sits them all down on the couch to watch a VHS of Cinderella and won’t let them leave until they’ve absorbed the message of her humility. But it doesn’t simply feel like Richard speaking to his children, it feels like Smith speaking to us, his audience – the same Smith who experienced his own meteoric rise to the top. The same Smith who’s openly catalogued his triumphs and failures as a father on social media. And the same Smith whose memoirs are about to hit shelves just as this film launches its awards campaign.

It’s one of those impressive fusions between actor and character, which all comes across so effortlessly onscreen, but gives King Richard the lifeblood it needs to triumph as a film. It would be too easy, otherwise, to see how carefully the truth has been manipulated. Not only have the real Serena and Venus given express permission for this story to be told, but they serve as executive producers. That does, at least, quiet any concerns that this film would take the credit away from two formidable women and hand it to one of the men in their lives.

But it also demands that a few of the edges are filed down – it’s mentioned only briefly that Richard was previously married before meeting Venus and Serena’s mother, Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjanue Ellis), and had several children. He was never there for any of them – did he see, in Venus and Serena, an opportunity to right his own failures as a father? The film never dares to go there.

That said, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, working off a script by Zach Baylin, still finds his own compelling sources of internal tension. King Richard both repudiates the narrative of white-owned media at the time – that he was, as one reporter puts it, “an overbearing, self-promoting distraction” – while still allowing the audience to question their trust in his vision. At one point, he pulls his daughters out of the junior tournament circuit, despite it being the only known pathway into the sport, but insists that it’s the only way these girls won’t end up burnt up and broken down.

Who’s really at the wheel of Richard’s ambition? His love for his children or his own ego? It’s a testament to both Green and Smith that the question is allowed to linger so potently.

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