Sunday, March 04, 2018

I, Tonya - the story of an abused, ambitious and abrasive figure skater

After an abusive upbringing and marrying an abusive boyfriend who plotted to upset the chances of one of her strongest figure-skating rivals, the production and screening of I, Tonya is perhaps the most fitting acknowledgement to Tonya Harding's life up until her mid-20s.

Given the fog of truth that surrounds events in Harding's life, Craig Gillespie's film using Steve Rogers' script) aptly pieces together testimony from family and friends - all of whom are labelled as unreliable witnesses - in order to tell the story of her rise and fall on the ice. The film cleverly dances between aspect ratios, preserving the feel of mid-1990's 4x3 TV footage on the big screen and some footage from the original source TV interviews is shown during the final credits.

Allison Janney plays LaVona Harding, a chain-smoking waitress who worked hard to support her child's talent at ice skating. From an early age, the coveted 'first woman to land a triple axel in competition' was talked about. But her finances didn't extend to the fine costumes and off-ice lifestyle that competition judges were keen to promote. And her temper put her in conflict with her daughter. Janney captures the

Margot Robbie has come a long way from her three year stint in Neighbours. Last seen as the distant mother in Goodbye Christopher Robin, and before that spotted in a bath tub giving an economics lesson in the middle of The Big Short, Robbie can flit from Tonya Harding's performance face to real life misery and back a couple of times within a 10 or 15 second shot. Her fine-tuned emotional control, much of it visible though close-ups in this film, is rewarded with her nomination for Best Actress at this year's Academy Awards.

In fact various themes seem to be running through the films that have floated to the top in this year's Oscar nominations. Dancing in snowy Moscow in Red Sparrow and now ice-skating in I, Tonya. Tales of women with determination in Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and now I, Tonya.

Characters don't come much grittier than Tonya Harding. Hit, stabbed and shot at - and that was just by her mother and her husband (Jeff Gillooly played by Sebastian Stan) - she sometimes danced to ZZ Top rather than sticking to a more orthodox classical repertoire. She was the first to land the triple axel jump, but that's only the plot point at the end of the first act, not the main story.

The amateur attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver) before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer is the crisis that propels the film towards its conclusion.

The director and script deftly play with domestic abuse and attempted maiming with a lightness of touch that neither papers over the awfulness of the situation nor makes the perpetrators out to be heroes. And so the supposed bodyguard, and for one time only criminal mastermind, Shawn Eckhardt portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser as an over-explaining screwball who finds two even more unlikely thugs to do his dirty work.

The ice skating sequences are integral to the plot but are not allowed to dominate the action. (Maizie Smith and Mckenna Grace deserve mention for their on-ice portrayal of Tonya Harding as a child and an adolescent.)

I, Tonya tells the story of an abrasive and abused underdog who paid heavily for the ambition of those around her (at least that's the slant taken in this retelling). I'd missed the fuss around figure-skating first time round in the 1990s, but I'm glad I've caught up with it now. With an unusual but effective method of storytelling, it's definitely my favourite sports-based film (admittedly from a pretty small short list given my aversion to watching other people physically exercise).

You'll find screenings in most local cinemas.

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