Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Review #1,314: 'I, Tonya' (2017)

What I know about the world of ice-skating wouldn't fill the back of a postage stamp. I'm familiar with Torvill and Dean's famous gold-medal winning routine at the 1984 Winter Olympics, but that's probably because I'm British and have seen their performance repeated during near enough every Olympic event since. Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya doesn't care if you like ice skating or not, because as soon as its troubled protagonist Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) hits the ice to the likes of Cliff Richard's Devil Woman and ZZ Top's Sleeping Bag, you'll be too caught up in the action, which are comparable to Baby Driver's car chase scenes, to care. But of course, if you know anything about Tonya Harding at all, you'll know this could never be just about ice skating.

One of my biggest gripes with biopics is the issue of historical accuracy and artistic license. Often a film can resemble a moving Wikipedia page as a result, and the other times it can be accused of glorifying its subject. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I, Tonya plays with this idea by admitting its based on questionable statements, and so tries to film it all to let the audience decide for themselves. Tonya, her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her abusive husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), security guard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), and a handful of others who were caught up in the whole Nancy Kerrigan debacle, all give their testimonies to camera as the action jumps back and forth in time. Characters sometimes break the fourth wall to outright deny what we're seeing is true, and this playful, fast-moving approach is what gives I, Tonya its zing. It reminded me of Adam McKay's excellent The Big Short, which also featured Robbie talking to camera.

Saying that, the film clearly has more sympathy for Tonya than it does for the abusers and low-lives around her. Born into a white-trash community with a sharp-tongued, bully of a mother looking after her, Tonya felt compelled to skate from a very young age. Trainer Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) doesn't train girls of her age, but soon changes her mind after meeting LaVona and seeing the 4 year-old come alive on the ice. At 15, she is one of the best skaters in the U.S., and one of a few who can pull off a triple axel jump. She is the only one to brave it in competition as well, but despite her abilities, the judges refuse to warm to her unconventional music and clothing choices, and general 'white trash' reputation. Against her mother's wishes, she starts to date Jeff, who quickly becomes abusive whenever Tonya speaks up. She pushes on anyway, trying to reinvent herself in order to meet the expectations of a snobby sport.

Of course, the action builds up to the attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan, an incident that shocked the sporting world and is still surrounded by controversy. As for Tonya's level of involvement, that's for you to decide. Gillespie's film could be accused of ignoring one of the victims caught up in the story, but to have focused more attention on Kerrigan could have taken the action away from Tonya, whose film this is. As for the performances, they are stellar across the board. It's a shame Margot Robbie wasn't up against such a formidable opponent in Frances McDormand for this year's Academy Awards, as her transformation here would have surely seen her take home a golden statue most other years. Janney and Stan are excellent too, with both managing to squeeze some sympathy out of their loathsome schemers, and Hauser appears to have wondered in from another movie until you see the real-life footage of Shawn at the end credits. I, Tonya is an intelligent, unconventional, highly entertaining and darkly funny re-telling of a difficult subject matter, with a knockout performance at its centre.

Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

I, Tonya (2017) on IMDb

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