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Review: King Richard is “crowd-pleasing, uplifting and not your standard biopic”

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Who is the power behind the throne?” is a question that assumes as much as it asks. Usually applied to dynasties, cementing the condescending idea that the people want a crowd-facing figurehead, the real ruling carried out by shadowy figures behind the curtain. Think The Wizard of Oz to Wolf Hall and more recently, Vice.

So calling a biopic – about the rise of the Williams sisters to dominant force in women’s tennis – King Richard is a risky move…that pays off. The narrative here is firmly centred on Richard Williams, Venus and Serena’s father.  It becomes clear that newcomer Reinaldo Marcus Green knows what he’s doing, conjuring a joyous, accomplished movie about a father whose a singular vision was formed far before his daughters were born. And, of course, how could a film starring Will Smith not be about him? Smith doesn’t do supporting roles.

Richard and wife Brandi (Anjanue Ellis, formidable here) have 5 daughters, living in a small house in Compton where the family share rooms and a single purpose. Richard knows that at least one of his daughters will become a pro tennis player, and when Venus starts to show form, he decides to do all that it takes to secure the training she needs. What follows is a story of tenacity, grindingly hard work and self-belief in the face of the extra adversity that comes with being black and poor in America. King Richard is stirring stuff, hitting all the highs and lows of the genre, while remaining refreshingly upbeat.

Although plenty of scenes are given to Saniyaa Sidney as Venus, Smith cannot help but dominate the movie, dedicating his screen presence to making Williams sympathetic and charming. It’s a winning combination, although unlikely to ring true to real life. Green also carefully uses his supporting actors; Ellis matching Smith scene for scene and Demi Singleton capturing Serena’s hunger to be the best in her sister’s shadow. But the big surprise in King Richard is Jon Bernthal’s pitch-perfect work as tennis coach Rick Macci – part man/part freshly squeezed juice from a Florida orange. So different from Bernthal’s usual tough guys.

As with all good biopics, there are setbacks and ultimate triumph, although the stakes aren’t that high when we all know the outcome, so King Richard has to offer something else. And it does. It’s so darn hopeful. Green chooses to bring out the pathos in multiple quieter moments in Williams’ life – the casual beatings by a local black gang, a laser-focus on school education, and constant anxiety about falling into black stereotypes. If anything, Green isn’t tough enough on the white systems that made Venus and Serena’s rise so difficult, but maybe he just wanted to centre to story away from the rolling tide of white supremacy.

Green weaves a crowd-pleasing and uplifting story while never getting maudlin. King Richard has all the ingredients to make an impact at the Oscars, being not your standard biopic.  Go see it while we wait for Serena’s story to be told. Will Smith might have cracked how the figurehead can also be the power behind a Best Actor win.

King Richard is in UK cinemas from 19th November 2021.

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