King Richard review: Will Smith courts Oscar in ace tennis biopic

Will Smith is Richard Williams in a scene from King Richard

Two-time Oscar nominee Will Smith will most likely be taking another run at Oscar gold, for his portrayal as the ultimate tennis dad Richard Williams, in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s good natured biopic King Richard.

Smith depicts Willams as both charming and overbearing, with subtle prosthetics and a pitch perfect idiosyncratic southern drawl. The Academy is going to eat this up.

It’s certainly an extraordinary story. Richard Williams has a 78-page plan to turn his daughters, Venus and Serena, into tennis legends, against all odds. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” he repeats like a mantra. He coaches his daughters from VHS tapes and nuggets picked up in magazine articles; they train on Compton’s neglected tennis courts, come rain or shine. 

The movie centres on Serena and Venus’ final years in Compton, when Williams finally convinces Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to coach Venus in junior tennis tourneys, before the family move to Florida to be a part of the Rick Macci training program.

Smith depicts Willams as both charming and overbearing, with subtle prosthetics and a pitch perfect idiosyncratic southern drawl. The Academy is going to eat this up…

Will Smith with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton in a scene from King Richard
Top onscreen chemistry between Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney (Venus) and Demi Singleton (Sereena)

Producer Trevor White says: “Almost everything in the script is factful. I remember the first time I sent it off to my manager for a read, and he didn’t know the story really well. The first notes I got back were, ‘This all couldn’t have happened…right?’ ‘No, everything is really accurate.’ They had a pretty incredible journey, I think, in part because Richard is a larger-than-life character. It just felt like a unique, American dream story, and the big challenge for me was capturing some of these huge events and unexpected interactions.”

The final reel (no spoilers) depicts Venus’ first professional tournament as a fully fledged child prodigy. If you haven’t studiously followed the career of either Williams sibling, or tennis in general, you’ll find yourself gripped by the drama.

Green, who is attached to write and direct the upcoming Bob Marley biopic, holds his racquet lightly, but the pic isn’t schmaltzy. What ultimately earns the movie its ‘feel good’ sobriquet is the onscreen chemistry between Smith, Saniyya Sidney (Venus) and Demi Singleton (Sereena). There’s also a strong performance by Jon Bernthal’s moustache.  

Technical chops are high. The score, by Kris Bowers, takes a uniquely literal approach to depicting the sport itself, and steers clear of histrionics. It’s all strings –  harp, piano, prepared piano and percussion. 

The on-court drama is emphasised by the increasing ‘thwock’ of the ball as it rallies back and forth. Fun fact: the sound design of King Richard is by a guy called Richard King.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit (no stranger to Oscar, having taken the Academy Award for his work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), perfectly captures the sense of time and place, (with appropriate nods to production and costume design). Will Smith spends virtually all his screen time wearing tight coaching shorts. House of Gucci this is not.

The Luxe Review Four Star ratings badge

King Richard is directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, and stars Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Oracene Williams. Rated 12A, 138 mins.

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About Steve May

Creator of Home Cinema Choice magazine, and editor of The Luxe Review, Steve muses and reviews for Trusted Reviews, T3, Yahoo UK, Home Cinema Choice, Games Radar, Ideal Home, Louder Sounds, Channel News and Boat International. He’s also the editor of professional home cinema website Inside CI. He's on Twitter and Instagram as @SteveMay_UK

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