Some differing British and American attitudes to success are on show at this year’s London film festival. The Phantom of the Open is the story of a real-life amateur Brit golfer who fought his way up to become the world’s most adorable loser. King Richard, by contrast, is the story of a real-life amateur US tennis coach who fought his way up to help his daughters become the world’s most sensational winners.
Will Smith is never seen in long trousers in this film, only tennis shorts. He plays the 24/7-committed, fanatically focused and demanding Richard Williams, renowned father of Venus and Serena Williams. This is the man who, by sheer force of will, took his daughters and the rest of his family straight out of Compton and into the sunlit uplands of multimillion-dollar pro-sports triumph, along the way battling snobbery and racism. White parents on the junior circuit wrongly call his girls’ shots out and white sports agents smilingly tell Richard what he’s done with Venus and Serena is “incredible” while lowballing him with derisory offers. (In real life, Richard has had some things to say about the gamesmanship of white tennis players up against his daughters in their adult glory, but the film soft-pedals this.) Young Venus and Serena are played, respectively, with sympathy and charm by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton; Aunjanue Ellis is their mother, Brandi, and Jon Bernthal their hyperactive coach Rick Macci, permanently exasperated by Richard’s capricious demands.
The film tracks the Williams family’s tough beginnings playing on scuzzy local courts, with Richard regularly getting roughed up when he tries to confront guys hitting on his underage daughters. He badgers a prestigious coach into giving his girls a chance, and then – with breathtaking chutzpah – fires this coach and takes Venus and Serena out of the punishing junior tournaments because he feels they need a regular upbringing. He hires Macci instead, and the movie nailbitingly climaxes with Venus’s extraordinary professional debut in 1994 at the age of 14, up against the world number two, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.
Nobody actually calls Williams “King Richard” in this film, and maybe the Shakespearean connotations aren’t quite right. Venus and Serena Williams are co-producers on the project and this is very much the authorised version, making it clear at all times how essentially sweet natured and nice he was as a dad, hardly ever losing his temper. Smith’s performance has the easy, even balance of a gyroscope in full spin, and it’s almost an older version of the untroubled athleticism he brought to his Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s film 20 years ago – but essentially opaque. Enjoyable and well-crafted as it is, this movie can’t quite decide what to do with the tougher, darker side of Richard Williams. What was it really like living with someone so driven? So disciplinarian? And someone who, in the film, appears to favour one daughter over the other at crucial stages? That remains a mystery.
King Richard skates over the impact and import of its most dramatic scene. Goaded beyond endurance in the early years by the sneering guy who’s been insulting his daughter and beating him up, Richard as played by Smith grabs the gun he’s allowed to have as a part-time security guard, goes looking for the man, sees him coming out of a convenience store and then … well, it’s an extraordinary happenstance, a cosmically important and revealing event. But the film is almost embarrassed by its implications: there are no closeups on Richard’s stunned face to show what he thinks. Soon we’re back to nice, smiley, lovably stubborn Richard, who presumably surrendered that handgun when he quit the security guard job.
That doesn’t stop this being a strong, confident picture with winning performances from Sidney and Singleton.
• King Richard screened at the London film festival; it is released on 19 November in the UK and US, and on 13 January in Australia.