Monday 1 January 2018

Movie Review: Williams (2017)

A documentary about the once all-mighty Formula 1 team's founder, Williams offers plenty of human insights but is an overall uneven effort.

Director Morgan Matthews focuses on the man and his family rather than the sport of racing, which is generally fine. But some of the omissions are startling and detract from the story. The 1986 season occupies plenty of screen time, as it unfolded in the shadow of Frank's near-fatal road accident (he was rendered a quadriplegic for life) and left the team dominant on the track but leaderless in the garage. To make matters worse, teammates Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, both going for the title, were quickly at each other's throats.

The outcome of that season, with Williams winning the constructor' crown but McLaren's Alain Prost pipping both Williams drivers to the title, is not even mentioned, let alone brought up in the included interviews with Williams or Technical Director Patrick Head.

Equally bewildering is the relative short-shrift given to the 1994 death of Ayrton Senna in a Williams at Imola. The whole shocking episode, which resulted in wholesale changes to the sport, is treated as a footnote to the 1970 death of Piers Courage, Williams' first F1 driver.

Frank Williams himself proves to be a difficult interview subject, an admittedly racing-obsessed man of few words and fewer emotions on display. To tap a more responsive vein Matthews wisely shifts focus slightly to the side, and finds compelling humanity in the form of daughter Claire, now the Deputy Team Principal. She gradually occupies centre stage in the film, and proves to be a capable bridge to the past and an honest commentator and observer of her father.

Also enlightening is the voice of Frank's wife Virginia (or Ginny), who passed away in 2013, but not before granting extensive taped interviews and co-writing (with Pamela Cockerill) the book A Different Kind Of Life (1991) as an outlet to express her bottled emotions. Matthews makes excellent use of Ginny's voice to peel away the layers of Frank's personality, and respectfully recreates snippets of the interview sessions.

Plenty of associates, friends, drivers (including Mansell, Piquet, Alan Jones and Jackie Stewart) and other family members are interviewed, and Williams reveals some more than worthwhile nuggets and discussion points, including how close Williams came to death, the family's vacation history, Frank's attitude towards Virginia's book, and unresolved sibling issues.

Reaching the pinnacle of a global sport never comes easily. Incomplete as it is, Williams opens a window onto the singular focus, harsh sacrifices, and character traits needed to achieve the summit.

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