king richard has always existed in abstract. You will have probably heard that Will Smith is in a film about Venus and Serena Williams, that he plays their father de el, and that the movie is more about him than it is about the world’s most famous sisters. But it’s less likely that you’ve actually seen king richard. It’s a film first eclipsed by the concurrent release of Smith’s skin-crawlingly intimate memoir, then by headlines about what a financial disaster it was at the box office. Such dismissal couldn’t have happened to a less serving film: king richard is far more complex than it first lets on, and is also buoyed by charm and affability. Smith, too, more than deserves his probable Best Actor win.
He plays Richard Williams, a tennis coach and security guard who always sensed that at least one of his daughters would be a sports sensation. Scratch that. He willed it to happen, guiding – through almost obsessive, drill-sergeant levels of conviction – young Venus and subsequently her little sister Serena to professional glory, as if God had whispered a vision of their futures in his ear from him. Actually, wait. A tennis player said on TV that she was earning $47,000 (£35,000) a tournament, perking Richard up and leading him to write a 78-page plan outlining the entire careers of his then unborn daughters de ella.
Despite its optics as a treacly biopic endorsed by the famous women it revolves around, king richard spends a lot of time in those uncertain waters. Richard is a conundrum of a protagonist, a man who is by turns inspiring, brilliant, ignorant and mean. He frequently undermines the voice of his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis – deservedly nominated for Best Supporting Actress – always refuses to buckle beneath the room-swallowing dominance of her husband), and sometimes seems less guided by his daughters’ potential de ella than his own proud of her
Richard serves as a proper actor’s showcase, Smith sourcing the character’s inner turmoil and outward bombast. It’s his best performance by him in years, and a rare bit of actor / character alchemy for an A-lister who often finds it hard to disappear into his roles by him.
Even before Smith became synonymous with such of he and wife Jada’s sexual entanglements – never mind the recent revelation that he once had so much “rampant sex” that he became violently ill – he was very much from the Angelina Jolie or Tom Cruise school of A -listers. You’re always somehow aware that you’re watching an A-lister act. It’s not always crippling, but it’s always there. king richard is as close as Smith has come to shrink his colossal fame.
The film is also something of a throwback. An underdog story wrapped in a character drama, it’s reminiscent of glossy Oscar movies of yore, and exactly the kind of project Hollywood doesn’t make much anymore. That it made about £50 at the box office may suggest that they shouldn’t. But there is a lovely gentleness to king richard all the same, from its visual warmth – Los Angeles has never looked sunnier – to the Nineties jams on its soundtrack. A biopic with dual tones of joy and grit, and one that doesn’t just feel like a glorified Wikipedia page (looking at you, The Eyes of Tammy Faye!), it’s worth seeing and celebrating. The Academy should follow suit.
The 94th Academy Awards take place on Sunday 27 March, with details on how to watch here