Oscar Nominations 2018 – FILM REVIEW: I, Tonya (2017)

Dir: Craig Gillespie

Nominated for: Best Actress (Margot Robbie), Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney), Best Film Editing.

Score: ★★☆☆☆

The story of long misunderstood champion figure skater, the infamous Tonya Harding, (infamous for supposedly being responsible for having the legs of her competition Nancy Kerrigan bashed in) I, Tonya follows Harding (Margot Robbie), through childhood, through figure skating success, “the incident”, and beyond. It’s a darkly comic tale that tries to play it both relatively broadly through its events and humour whilst still attempting to maintain enough edge so as to not stray too far into general popular cinema fayre (think The Big Short with a triple axel instead of sub prime mortgages). But what the film does quite noticeably is attempt to be Goodfellas with ice skates. Every opportunity is made to model the film on Goodfellas down to the camera techniques, pacing, editing, use of multiple narrators (sometime to camera as in Goodfellas closing moments), similar scenes, plot movements, even down to a specific freeze frame in the movie which has exactly the same dialogue as a freeze frame shot in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic. It bears so many similarities to Goodfellas it cannot be simple copycatting, it must be a full blown tribute.

Margot Robbie slo mo performs the triple axel CGI style.

This sports bio wants so desperately to be a crime drama and to some degree it succeeds in giving you some of that feeling, even if it’s just because it echoes Scorsese’s approach so closely. It gives the movie a pace and urgency that allows for the film to have as wide a scope as it does from a timeline point of view, and allows the comedy of the movie to speed along as the urgency of the Goodfellas style soundtrack approach clashes one song into the next, into the next, and… the next. The film does indeed have a tremendous soundtrack. It does exceedingly well at selecting songs from artists like Dire Straits, Supertramp, Heart, Laura Brannigan and more that are likely to give the movie instant pop culture appeal to many. The use of lots of music does bear out the brightly designed ad campaign for this movie that suggested it was going to be a pop culture romp. Which indeed it is. It goes without saying however that in Goodfellas the music was forming part of the richly detailed petina that formed over the characters and situations, whereas all too often I, Tonya uses the music to inform the scenes, relying all too heavily on your attachment or impression of the songs rather than the scene and acting put before you.

Late 70s early 80s styles and sounds (this is the bit where Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits plays).

The first truly marquee role of Margot Robbie’s career she doesn’t come off too badly cloaked in this veil of music, editing and attitude. Her Oscar nomination might be a little over the top however. In the past some have criticised Goodfellas for it’s “flashy” directing techniques for distracting the viewer as though the director is saying “look at me” but actually when looked at in context, each and all of those choices were made to explicitly serve the story and heighten the viewers relationship with the events and world of the film. In I, Tonya the “Scorsese-lite” directing essentially just makes the film a bit more fun, and helps distract from the fact there is only so much story to go around. It does indeed serve to hide any major flaws in the performances, raising them up from just being competent to seeming quite well appointed. The film’s story and events is drawn mostly from (what the films describes as) wildly contradictory interviews with Tonya and her infamous boyfriend Jeff Gillooly. “Re-enactments” of these interviews run throughout the film to try to represent the differing viewpoints, but in truth the film nearly always comes down on the side of Tonya. It never looks at events from an impartial perspective, and Nancy Kerrigan’s viewpoint is certainly totally absent which some have criticised. But to criticise it on those terms is to miss the point that this film sets out to agree with Tonya’s viewpoint entirely and wants you to see how events unfolded through the warped opinions of Nancy & Jeff (despite the variations in their stories).

Allison Janney gets to play Cruella De Vil in this Goodfellas homage.

It seemingly soups up the mother character (ably played by a sharply humorous Allison Janney) to be more of a monster than perhaps she was, but doesn’t pull too many punches with Jeff whose short sharp outbursts of violence against Harding leave no doubt that their relationship was not a healthy one. It’s clear Harding has faced many challenges, not least of all the ones that involve becoming a skater of such standing in a skating world that was not interested in accepting a girl of her socio-economic standing, with such rough edges rarely seen in the showy world of figure skating. But the film clearly dresses her story up, sometimes for dramatic effect, but mostly for fun. Many of the serious issues touched upon in the film like domestic abuse, and well, lets face it, flat out hobbling of your opponent is essentially built to be fun, which isn’t always in the correct approach even the context of this movie. Additionally it does look too sympathetically on Tonya on occasion, she essentially is painted in black and white terms as misunderstood, justified in her actions because of the behaviour of those around her, and totally guilt free as regards “the incident”. On the other hand it’s fair to say the film does give you the insight needed to realise this was just a group of people who basically got more than a bit carried away.

The two opposing sides of this story Jeff Gallooly (Sebastian Stan) and Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie)

See it for the fun soundtrack, the 80s costumes and colour palette, the tale of skating greatness, and the ok-ish comedy elements that make it a slightly over cooked but fun pop culture ride. Just don’t expect a great film or for an impartial re-telling of events. This film is Tonya pleading her case (through the guise of not giving a fuck about anything) as one of the media’s most misunderstood figures in recent history. In all fairness she is largely right and indeed the film has a formidable sting in it’s tale in a albeit short but brilliant scene where Tonya makes you the audience complicit in the ruining of her life. The subtext the film employs throughout (embodied by Bobby Cannavale), making the media & importantly you culpable for crimes greater than the ones many presumed Tonya was guilty of, is one of the sharper pieces of film writing this year. For me however, the greatest crime is not naming this one Goodfellas on Ice.

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