It’s that time of the year again when the true-story crowdpleasers come out to play, with lofty dreams of bagging a coveted Academy Award. This month, two such films are vying for Oscar glory.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard doesn’t get off to the best of starts: a sports family biopic about the accomplishments of two extraordinary women – tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams – that is really about a man, in this case their father and coach Richard Williams. Sigh. However, what could have been an ill-judged disaster unfolds into a perfectly entertaining, subject-approved tribute.
Will Smith stars as the titular patriarch in the “champion-raising business”, fighting against considerable adversity: institutional racism, a classist system and the overwhelmingly all-white nature of the competitive professional tennis circuit. The film adheres to the time-tested structure of many an American Dream story, but it doesn’t cram in too much of its subjects’ lives into the runtime and wisely focuses on the early years of the Williams sisters (from the childhood years in Compton to Venus’ professional debut at age 14). Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are excellent as the young Venus and Serena, driving home the theme of how ambition and passion can be weaponised against marginalised groups as a tool of repression.
King Richard is undeniably let down by some clunky dialogue and the fact that it indulges in that most grating of biopic sins: footage of the real-life protagonists during the end credits, which is only there as a self-congratulatory add-on to boast about how close the actors got to the people they aimed to portray.
Still, as familiar as the film’s inspirational beats are, it works. There’s little-to-no-chance that it’ll bag the top award, but Will Smith will be a frontrunner for Best Actor: he wants an Oscar very badly, works hard for it, and having been denied a statuette for his nominated performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that the odds on his trophy cabinet remaining empty feel slimmer this year.
Equally decent and sentimental is Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale which chronicles the life of a working-class family during the tumult of the late 1960s. The effectiveness of this big-hearted monochrome love letter to the past lives and dies on audience tolerance for misty-eyed sentimentality, the over-application of Van Morrison, and for lines like “All the Irish need to survive is a phone, a pint, and the sheet music to ‘Danny Boy’”. Some will be swept up by this elegiac celebration of family and home, whose political side-stepping is explained through the sheltered perspective of a child’s-eye view of the world; others will rightly feel that Branagh’s romanticism cheapens the real-life despair and unrest of the Troubles.
Whichever side you land on, and as emotionally generous as Belfast undoubtedly is, it remains an episodic exercise in myth-making that only half works. The performances are superb, with Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds on sparkling form as a gorgeous pair of grandparents, while newcomer Jude Hill (Branagh’s 9-year-old on- screen stand-in) is the beating heart of the film, there to ensure that you’ll tear up at least once.
Still, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Belfast’s sweetened brand of nostalgia has a flattening effect, an impression bolstered by its resemblance to another – superior – black-and-white film about a director’s fondly remembered childhood set against the backdrop of tumult: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.
Belfast suffers from this comparison and can’t quite escape the shadow of its brazen Oscar bid. That said, if the Academy bottles it by not rewarding Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, don’t bet against it being bound for Oscar glory.