Netflix UK film review: Williams
Matthew Turner | On 04, Aug 2017
Director: Morgan Matthews
Cast: Emily Bevan, Jenny Funnell
Watch Williams online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Directed by Morgan Matthews (who made maths prodigy drama X+Y), this British documentary is one of a number of Formula 1 racing docs (1, McLaren, etc) to have emerged following the success of Asif Kapadia’s Senna in 2010. The title is significant, as Matthews focuses not just on Williams Formula 1 team founder Frank Williams, but also his daughter, Claire, and his late wife, Ginny, who died in 2013. What emerges is a fascinating and deeply personal family history, though die-hard petrol-heads may wish for a little more focus on the racetrack.
From the outset, Matthews sets himself a difficult task by effectively telling three stories simultaneously. Primarily, there’s Frank’s story, from his early days as a car enthusiast, through to the establishing of the Formula 1 team and his various successes, until a horrific car accident in 1986 left him quadriplegic – though, incredibly, he still continues to observe races from the sidelines.
Secondly, there’s the story of Claire, who was “handed the keys to the kingdom” following her father’s accident and has been the de facto head of the team ever since, fighting hard to gain respect in what is obviously still a mostly male dominated field. Her story comes with its own measure of emotional turmoil, since it encompasses a rivalry with her brother, with the pair no longer on speaking terms.
Finally, Matthews bases a good third of the film on the 1991 book A Different Kind of Life, written covertly by Frank’s wife, Ginny, who died in 2013. In addition to including much of Ginny’s audio recording for the book (accompanied by reconstructed footage with an actress mouthing Ginny’s words), Matthews also includes several contributions from Ginny’s best friend, Pamela Cockerill, who co-wrote the book and conducted the interviews with Ginny.
In the book, Ginny wrote candidly about her relationship with Frank, both before and after the accident, and her deep-seated anguish throughout their relationship, not just in relation to the dangers of the profession, but also because his obsession with racing seemed to come at the exclusion of everything else – Claire recalls, for example, that he never came on any family holidays, remembering that her mother said that it was just as well, as he’d only drive them all mad anyway.
In the film’s most moving moments, Matthews attempts to link all three strands of the film by having Claire attempt to read extracts of the book to her father (who, oddly, looks a lot like Eddie Marsan), since he says he has never read it. It’s a deeply awkward moment, with Frank struggling to hide his emotion, and it’s not quite the catharsis that either Claire or the audience are hoping for.
Ultimately, while it leads to some powerful moments, the film’s split focus has a detrimental effect on the flow of the overall story, because there are constant stops and starts. There’s also a nagging feeling that we’re not quite getting the whole story – it’s clear, for example, that Williams’ relationship with best friend and fellow driver Piers Courage (who died in a racing accident in 1970) affected him very deeply, yet Matthews stops frustratingly short of digging further.
In a similar fashion, Matthews never quite manages to get out of Frank what exactly it is that drives his obsession, beyond a brief sequence where he quotes the “need for speed” line from Top Gun. Still, this remains a fascinating, if ultimately uneven portrait of a legendary racing family, even if it’s stronger on personal emotion than on racing history.
Williams is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.