Venus and Serena Williams were the dominant force in tennis between 1998 and 2002, winning each of the Slams four times, including six major championships in a row from 2001 to 2003. In the biopic Venus and Serena Williams, the power-hitting sisters undergo a career crossroads when they were to decide between continuing their tennis careers and starring on stage.
You can definitely see why the film was such a smash hit; it has the proper sense of drama, with Andrew Garfield taking over the role of Wade Smith from Smith’s real-life self. The basic plot is the usual biopic fare: revenge, love, family feuds and bad-shooting, but it’s sizzling on the inside, with plenty of tension.
In the opening scene, there’s a convincing moment that the rift between sisters deepens when a deeply-regimented, gay-bashing Will Smith walks through their home kitchen and enters the ice-cream van (he’s dubbed by the brilliant Michael B Jordan). We’re presented with two (surely unlike-to-be-spoilt) sisters running their universe in their own, mutually-predictable manner, but when their pressure cooker finally explodes, all we are left with is a million words crying out to be stifled and unpeeled.
Some might find the film emotionally lacking in the “close brother/sister” story arc: little love is shown towards either of them, and their hot-headed streak is stifled, rather than exposed. But Davis said that this shouldn’t worry viewers too much, because “the power-broker of this film is an international stage, and you don’t want to undercut that.”
“With this kind of story, it’s about the tension between power and brotherhood,” Davis continues. “Will brings out that strength. If you had any feelings of, ‘oh, should they be brothers,’ you would feel lost after watching Will. He gave an Oscar-worthy performance.”
So what did he give? Smith has shown a sharp eye for comedy and emotion before in movies like Hitch and No Good Deed, but he truly delights in sporting roles, with a similar-style pull that makes him intimidating, and an endearing heartbreak.
“But he’s a pretty talented actor too. He’s just more intense about it – there’s a seriousness with him. Serena and Venus have this very principled way that they act. They’re well-practised in being the best, and there’s pressure on them,” Davis says.
“He does like the element of being an actor. He’s a grounded guy who can work very long hours. And since it’s set in the 90s, the script was very minimalist in how much action was going on. So he got to keep going. He had the opportunity to pick and choose.”
It’s easy to get starstruck over these big names, but surprisingly, Smith is incredibly likable. He’s a gracious presence on set (during his face-off scene, it’s interesting to see how the crew and Smith and his co-stars take his presence in their stride, because it’s not a usual way to approach someone who’s playing such a close-up part), and his interest in the audience is key to the film’s overall success.
He gives his role the respect it needs, so that when characters do badly, we feel it, because it’s clear that he’s giving a live performance and that he’s not relying on set design, costume, or any other outside skills. Smith has a firm on-screen connection with viewers – that empathy helps the film make a coherent impact.
“The whole thing is, it’s just a very finely tuned object in the world of Hollywood. If you don’t have something to say, you can be just a typical middle-of-the-road actor,” Davis said.
“What you have in Will is a certain kind of passion. So, with that kind of passion and that kind of enthusiasm, which is off the charts, that translates on the screen in a very exciting way.”
Venus and Serena Williams is in cinemas now.