In theaters and on HBO Max, King Richard tells the story of the early career of Venus Williams (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton), driven to success by their ambitious, devoted, overbearing father, Richard (Will Smith). The movie skillfully pairs an underdog sports narrative with a focus on the close-knit, determined family. I am not kidding when I say that I want to see a version of Little Women retold focusing on the five sisters living in one bedroom under the watchful eye of Richard and Orascene Williams (Aunjanue Ellis).
Will Smith is pretty clearly campaigning for an Oscar in his performance as Richard, but he is far from the only star in this cast. While Smith balances Richard’s devotion with his sometimes obnoxious level of stubborn confidence, the more understated performances given by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena display a lot of talent. The girls have wonderful chemistry with each other and give their characters both heart and charm. As their mother, Orascene, Aunjanue Ellis shines in a particularly tense argument with Richard midway through the film. Finally, as the girls’ coaches, Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn hold their own opposite Smith’s larger-than-life Richard. Their “can you believe this guy?” attitude and obvious care for the Williams sisters serves as a stand-in for the audience’s reactions.
Although King Richard is long, it is well-paced, structuring the plot smartly around natural peaks in the girls’ tennis careers and the times when Richard pulls them back to just be kids. Structuring the plot in this way mirrors real life and builds in suspense by frustrating the audience (and the coaches). The film hints at darker aspects of Richard’s character and I am sure that a lot gets left unsaid. I am also sure that the story takes liberties to drive up the drama, but the movie does a good job of telling an inspiring family story without being overly sentimental or pedantic. For real, give me Little Women: The Price-Williams Sisters.
King Richard was written by Zach Baylin and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. It runs 2 hours 24 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some violence, strong language, and sexual references, and brief drug references.
Streaming on Amazon Prime, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain improbably dramatizes the life and career of Victorian artist Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) who primarily drew whimsical, big-eyed cats. Wain, an odd and impractical man, becomes the head of his family after his parents’ deaths, despite the fact that his sister, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) is more mature and capable of running a household. But, you know, Victorian gender roles. Speaking of the film’s narrator (Olivia Colman) has plenty of snide commentary on the times. Alongside the strange story of Wain’s artistic careers runs his love story with Emily Richardson-Wain (Claire Foy), first his sisters’ governess, then his wife.
This movie begins so charmingly, self-aware of its strange story and irreverent toward the culture in which it takes place. Then, once the charm starts to wear off, the movie really starts to sag. If King Richard is well-paced, Louis Wain, almost a half an hour shorter, meanders as much as its title character. I did not know Wain’s story, so I certainly learned a lot while watching the movie, but its quirks would have been better served by a tighter edit.
The performances at first have the odd quality of a Wes Anderson movie, but, as the story moves toward grimmer subject matter, the actors get to flex their dramatic chops. Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy have the biggest swing from comedy to drama and their odd romance is delightful. Andrea Riseborough plays Caroline as a stern foil to Louis and anchors the story well.
Cinematography is where this movie excels most. Given the subject of Louis art, his mental illness, and the fascination with science, the art directors have a lot to play with and they do so in an almost psychedelic way that creates a contrast between the starkness of the Wain family’s situation and the wonder with which Louis approaches life.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain was written by Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe, who directed. It runs 1 hour 51 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and strong language.