It's hard to say if 'Venus and Serena' is the most unbiased examination of the careers of the two tennis siblings, but it's certainly an interesting look at their personal lives and the struggles they have gone through to try and stay on top. The filmmakers (female directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major) had special access to Venus and Serena during 2011, and fill up the rest of their movie with archival footage of the sisters' careers. There's also some additional interview footage inserted with the likes of President Bill Clinton, Chris Rock, and tennis legends John McEnroe and Billie Jean King.
Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on one's expectations for what this movie will cover), 2011 was a down year for both sisters for a variety of reasons. Serena suffered from a pulmonary embolism early that year, while Venus had injury issues followed by a diagnosis of Sjogren's syndrome (an auto-immune disease). Both girls spend much of the film rehabbing, and while Serena begins to work her way back to the top of women's tennis, this movie really marks the beginning of the decline of Venus' career (although she's still good enough to win doubles tournaments when she teams up with her younger sister).
The most interesting person in 'Venus and Serena' doesn't turn out to be either of the sisters, but rather their father, Richard, who was obsessed with turning his two young girls into tennis superstars. Footage from early in the girls' lives when they were practicing every day seems to imply that Richard was another one of those obsessive parents looking to get rich through the talents of his children, but 'Venus and Serena' never asks or addresses that question. Nor does it address the more important question of if fame and success are worth robbing two young women of their childhoods.
Other controversial topics are glossed over as well, such as the Indian Wells tournament in 2001, where Venus pulls out of a semifinal match against her sister – leaving many to suspect she did so at her father's behest, so Serena could advance to the finals. Richard accused the fans of being racist, and although there was no actual evidence (other than Richard's claims) of anyone shouting racial slurs at any members of the Williams family (and this was a televised event with plenty of cameras), this movie also seems to side with them in suggesting it was a racist crowd. Incidentally, neither Williams sister has played at Indian Wells since the 2001 tournament. A whole movie could be made about this one event, so I was rather shocked that it only got a few minutes of screen time here.
Which brings me back to the opening sentence of this review – it's really hard to determine how unbiased the directors were in their portrayal of the Williams sisters. It becomes clear in the extras that the directors originally wanted to show how unlikely the rise of two African Americans to the top of the tennis world was, but did they lose their objectivity in the process of making the movie? While there's little fault to find with either Venus or Serena (aside from the occasional – and very human – outburst or shortness with someone), the same doesn't appear to be true of Richard Williams. Were the directors afraid to explore his motives for fear of losing both access and possibly their movie?
Needless to say, 'Venus and Serena' makes for an interesting view. On the surface, it wants to be a feel-good flick about these two incredibly talented sisters. Under the cracks and behind the corners, however, it seems as if there's a much more interesting tale to be discovered.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Venus and Serena' is served up on Blu-ray in a standard keepcase with no inserts. The 50GB dual-layer disc is front-loaded with trailers for To The Wonder, A Place at the Table, Shadow Dancer, and a promo for the AXS TV network. The main menu consists of a montage of footage from the movie with menu selections along the lower third of the screen. In addition to typical menu options like set up and scene selection, the menu also contains options for bookmarks and for BD Live (although no BD Live material was yet available at the time I reviewed this title).
Most of the issues with the video are due to the aesthetic choice by the directors to show archival non-HD footage in a stretched format so that it fills the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This leads to a ton of jagged edge and ghosting issues that wouldn't have been nearly as noticeable had they just left that footage in the 4:3 ratio.
All the footage shot by the directors appears to have been done so digitally, and other than the fact that most of those shots are hand-held (causing a lot of unnecessary shaking and the occasional quick zoom in or zoom out of the camera), they're fairly sharp and artifact-free. Details are good throughout, although black levels are a little on the light side, giving the overall footage (at least the newly-shot bits) a slightly bright appearance to it.
Still, the above imperfections are just minor quibbles and the overall quality is good. I'm guessing that much of the reason the video looks the way it does is because it was shot with natural lighting, as the sit-down interviews in the movie have a much richer, fuller look to them.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track almost seems like overkill here since, as you can imagine, this is very much a dialogue-driven movie. The only time the rear speakers seem to kick in is as part of the musical soundtrack that occasionally pops up, and even then activity is hardly noticeable. The good news – particularly since much of the movie was shot 'on the fly' with handheld cameras – is that there are no real problems with dropouts or obtrusive background noises drowning out the primary individuals of each shot. So while the audio is less than spectacular, it's certainly serviceable and more than enough for a movie of this type.
Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
'Venus and Serena' is a movie that can be viewed from a couple different perspectives. As a straight sports documentary is probably the least interesting of those ways, as it's rather run-of-the-mill from that viewpoint. But when one starts to examine what they're viewing versus how it's being presented, the movie becomes far more interesting. Although it's never addressed, there's definitely a subtext going on here about the effects of success on a family. The Williams clan isn't quite dysfunctional, but they're far from run-of-the-mill, either. So whether you're a fan of tennis or not, this makes for a worthwhile rental.