Wednesday, 24 January 2018

I, Tonya: Film Review

I, Tonya: Film Review


Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Alison Janney
Director: Craig Gillespie

It's hard to know where the truth lies in the cinematic and literal punchbag and punchline that is director Craig Gillespie and actor Margot Robbie's I, Tonya.
I, Tonya: Film Review

A non-conventional biopic that mingles fourth-wall breaking, Fargo-esque shenanigans, Goodfellas-style extreme domestic violence, comedy and unreliable narrators, the truth is as difficult to trace as the film is keen to promote Margot Robbie's Tonya Harding as a victim, not a villain.

As Verbal in The Usual Suspects intoned at the end, "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist", much of a similar ethos has been thrown at I, Tonya and you're likely to emerge still not quite believing who is right, what the truth of the incident that hobbled Harding's contender Nancy Kerrigan in January 1994 actually is and assured that Alison Janney deserves all the plaudits she's being showered in for the role of Tonya's harridan mother.

Beginning with a relatively quiet start and a series of others piece-to-cameras explaining their role in the Tonya tale, Gillespie sets about building an image of Tonya before Robbie's presence is fully revealed.

Sitting in her kitchen, looking non-descript and complete with lank hair and limp bangs, Robbie portrays Harding as the victim in all of this, who never wanted anything more than to skate.

Taking in her childhood in 1970, where her mother LaVona (a nothing short of sinister and compelling turn from Janney under a pudding bowl cut and pair of unflattering glasses) daily verbally and physically abuses Harding, the film follows Tonya's rise to adulthood, her abusive relationship with Jeff Gillooly and her desire to simply skate and do nothing else.

Robbie's impressive as Harding for the most part - even if the back third of the film feels directionless and sprawling as it takes in a crime ripped straight from the annals of the Fargo anthology series in its ineptness and woeful stupidity.

I, Tonya: Film Review
But Robbie's game is seriously raised - and the film is indeed never better than when Janney is on screen and we dwell in their interactions. Simmering with an horrific tension and redolent of systemic abuse, these scenes are frank in their approach and as eye-opening an insight into character as could be expected.

However, Gillespie's desire to make the audience complicit (and Harding's on-screen end insistence that the audience is to blame for what happened to her) makes the film particularly conflicting viewing at times.

Punctuating moments of strong violence from Gillooly with Robbie's fourth-wall breaking leaves an occasionally uncertain taste in the mouth as the film goes on. Granted the material is pulled from a He Said, She Said style narrative, but the oddly jokey tone sits uncomfortably throughout.

That said, there are moments of directorial bravura in I, Tonya.

Gillespie's eye for dazzling sweeping shots of skating on the ice give the film a sequinned thrill and Tonya's tale an arc of tragedy, where the beauty she displayed in the rink is so fused with the ugliness of what lies off it in her domestic hillbilly life. (Though occasionally, it feels like some of the CGI fails its subject.)

Ultimately, and unfortunately, I, Tonya makes a literal punchline of its subject, and leaves you none the wiser to the reliability and relatability of what transpires on screen.
I, Tonya: Film Review

It does feel overlong hitting nearly 2 hours, and the farcical elements sit with unease next to the violence, but perhaps, in some ways, this is the point of I, Tonya.

Harding has always been a conflicting and divisive figure.

It certainly feels in its denouement as she protests her innocence that she believes she's misunderstood (and the film allows this agenda throughout).

Even with Janney's superlative turn and Robbie's occasional shining strength and resolute performance, I, Tonya spins a polarising story, a bastardisation of the American dream that's hard to get to the core of - and definitely one whose black humour and approach will leave you feeling deeply conflicted afterwards.

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