Magnolia Pictures // 2013 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Matt Dicker (Retired) // August 11th, 2013
Icons. Rivals. Champions. Sisters.
Now that Venus and Serena Williams have dominated tennis for so long their presence seems to be a given, it is easy to forget just how revolutionary their arrival on the tennis scene was and how compelling their story is. An all-access documentary on the two legends is long overdue.
In the almost 20 years Venus and Serena Williams have played professional tennis, no year was as challenging for the sisters as 2011. Venus injured her hip early at the Australian Open, and upon returning was forced to miss more tournaments, first due to a viral disease and then as a result of a diagnosis of Sjogren Syndrome. Serena, meanwhile, was coming off a 2010 season in which she missed significant playing time due to stepping on a broken glass, and then suffered a pulmonary embolism that required a long and painful rehabilitation.
Venus and Serena follows two of the greatest competitors in the history of tennis as they work to come back from these setbacks while telling the remarkable story of their upbringing and rise to the top from the most unexpected of backgrounds.
Depending on how you look at it, directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major were either incredibly lucky or unlucky to have chronicled the Williams sisters during the 2011 tennis season. In a bonus feature on the Blu-ray, it is mentioned that the directors had sought to make a documentary tracking the Williams sisters for several years, and were finally approved for 2011, arriving just in time to chronicle an injury-ridden season that saw the two spend little time on the court.
Though these injuries robbed Baird and Major of the inherent drama that would have come with watching one or both of the sisters pursuing tournament victories and adding to their Grand Slam counts, the directors were left with a very different type of story. As we see in the film, the lives of the Williams sisters have been consumed by tennis since childhood, and for the first time in their lives the two are left unable to do what they love. Thus, instead of watching the sisters prepare for and compete in tournaments, we see the Williams sisters living their lives, revealing more about who they are than tennis fans have been able to glean from watching the two on the court.
Who the sisters are is a fascinating subject. The story of Venus and Serena's upbringing is oft told: two sisters from Los Angeles's Compton neighborhood are pushed into tennis by their aspirational but demanding father and groomed for greatness. Though many laughed at Mr. Williams's dream, they fulfilled his prophecy of each becoming the top-ranked player in the world.
Venus and Serena tells this obligatory tale, but what is far more interesting are the scenes of the sisters, particularly Serena, attempting to occupy themselves as they cope with injuries. Unlike injuries sustained earlier in the sisters' careers, these injuries took a far greater toll on the two, both of whom are likely approaching the end of their dominance of the sport due to age. Both of the sisters -- Serena in particular -- seem to be struggling not only with occupying themselves, but in the realization that they will soon have to figure out who they are in their post-tennis lives.
The film includes interviews and voiceovers with some big names, including President Bill Clinton, Anna Wintour, and Gay Talese. Though these are impressive gets for any filmmaker and it's interesting to see who count themselves as fans of Venus and Serena, these interviews offer little insight.
The bonus features include nearly a whole extra documentary worth of deleted scenes, as well as interviews with each of the film's directors. The scenes offer even greater insight into the Williams sisters, but it's hard to find a scene that wasn't rightfully cut from the film (though I wish they could have found a way to include Venus shopping for Hellboy comic books). The interviews are brief but offer worthwhile insight into the filmmaking process.
Venus and Serena looks and sounds great on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1/1080p HD transfer is more than enough to capture the film, especially since it has far less action than one would expect. Still, everything looks great here, from the archival footage of the Williams sisters as children to the tournament footage. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio perfectly captures the sounds of the tennis match, offering a greater sense of the aural experience of the sport than most tennis viewers are used to hearing.
Venus and Serena is a well-crafted documentary with the type of fascinating moments that can only come from close and extended access to its subjects. Though the injuries the Williams sisters battled through 2011 robbed the filmmakers of the chance to chronicle the sisters on the tennis courts, the greater access that came with the injuries allowed the filmmakers to reveal the sisters' personalities in a new and compelling way.
Venus and Serena wins in straight sets.
Review content copyright © 2013 Matt Dicker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes