Thursday, 26 April 2018

Film Review | I, Tonya (2018)

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You know their names, and you know the incident. But do you really know what happened? Craig Gillespie’s biopic I, Tonya certainly doesn’t answer any of those questions. Instead, Gillespie takes Steve Rogers fantastic screenplay and adapts conflicting interviews from those involved to give audiences another chance to decide their fate, as many did twenty-three years ago. 

Presented with immensely dark humour and cutting-edge performances, the story of the infamous American figure skater Tonya Harding has never been shown in this medium before. Gone are the 60-minute specials and media frenzy surrounding the incident, her career and personality. Instead, Gillespie presents Harding’s story in a docufiction style with mockumentary flair, recreating interviews with Harding (Margot Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Harding’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney) to tell the story before, during and after the famed incident between Harding and her skating rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). 

It’s obvious that Gillespie knew the main draw to this film would be the dramatization of the 1994 incident between Kerrigan and Harding; he doesn’t shy away from this, and neither do the characters. As interesting – and disheartening – as Harding’s childhood and pre-professional skating career is, once it comes to the famed attack, Harding exasperatingly tells the audience ‘It’s what you all came here for, folks. The fucking incident.’

Gillespie is more than candid in presenting this event, even for those who are not familiar with what occurred. The interviews surrounding the dramatization furthers Harding’s struggles of not being in control, with Gillooly and self-appointed ‘bodyguard’ Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) masterminding the attack. Well, ‘masterminding’ is too strong of a word, both stumble into the events that unfold after Eckhardt takes Gillooly’s original idea of a death threat just a tad too far. Eckhardt hires two incompetent crooks to club Kerrigan in the knee, hoping that this strike will break her leg and therefore prevent her from competing against Harding in the 1994 Winter Olympics.

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The trouble with focusing on Harding’s side of the story, however, furthers the narrative that the media spun in the 1990s. That, of course, someone like Harding – who was often referred to as ‘trailer-trash’ – would be behind this assault against the ‘ice princess’ that Kerrigan was described as. The media and the public would often brush over Kerrigan’s upbringing, which was a mirror of Harding’s; struggle, poverty, and sheer determination. The media pitted the two women together when in reality it was a case of an abusive husband believing he was doing the right thing for his partner, making sure she had a sure chance of winning the Winter Olympics.

While the film does not specifically side with Harding’s version of events – or anyone’s for that matter – the film could have lent to a faux interview or two from Kerrigan to allow her side of the story to be told alongside Harding’s. Obviously, the film is I, Tonya not I, Nancy, but perspectives from both sides would have lent to a more balanced conclusion in the eyes of the audience.

All of this is cemented by strong, admirable performances from Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney – and a rather underrated performance from Paul Walter Hauser – that all fit within these roles as ease, making it hard to believe that they aren’t actually the real people involved with this story. Especially when it comes to Robbie and Janney; they completely inhabit these roles to the point where Robbie spent four months training on the skating rink, and the role of LaVona was purposefully written by Rogers for Janney specifically. 

Robbie’s performances on the ice is something else entirely – it’s insane to think that it only took her four months to train for this. She glides across that ice with such ease that is easy to mistake her for Harding at points – that is until you catch a glimpse of her face in high speed turns, which is obviously CGI-ed onto one of the skating doubles faces for the more complicated move sets like the triple axel. It’s jarring at first, but once you focus more on what Robbie is doing with her feet and body rather than her face, her performances are as mesmerizing as Harding’s were back in the day.

It’s exhilarating watching a fictional version of that famed triple axel skate as it is watching the real thing, which is a testament to Gillespie’s direction and the camera setups of cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis and ice-skating operator Dana Morris. All three work in perfect tandem, further promoting an air of realism Harding’s hard-hitting routines to her unconventional song choices, which are too littered throughout the film courtesy of music supervisor Susan Jacobs.

With Jacobs selection, Gillespie’s dark wit, Karakatsani’s flair and Robbie’s commanding yet vulnerable performance, I, Tonya paints a visceral vision of the late 80s and early 90s that Harding had in her grasp, making her inevitable fall so much more devastating than one could have imagined. 

I, Tonya will be released via Amazon on 25 June 2018. 


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