Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Fleapit revisited:I, Tonya.

"It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You're all my attackers too".

Those of us of a certain age will recall, possibly vaguely, the rivalry between American figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and, most of all, the notorious kneecapping attack on Kerrigan at a rink in Detroit in January 1994. In the early days of rolling news the press pounced on this story and soon Kerrigan was painted in the role of all American golden girl and victim and Harding assumed the mantle of violent redneck prepared to win at all costs, even if that meant hobbling her opponent and friend.

Craig Gillespie's enjoyable new film, I, Tonya, reminds us that that's not the whole story and, in fact, that the whole story, even 24 years, later is still far from clear. That's primarily due to the unreliability of the incident's leading protagonists who each still have reputations to defend, axes to grind, and agendas to fill.

Presented in a mock documentary, but not full mockumentary, style the film is narrated by five of the story's most important characters -  and one minor one - all filmed in the now looking back at the then. News footage of the time shown over the end credits help us appreciate how well cast, and acted, the film is.

Tonya herself (Margot Robbie) is textbook trailer trash, shooting rabbits with her soon to be estranged father, drinking and smoking when she's supposed to be training, and goofing around in pick up tricks. Yet it's apparent from an early age she has a phenomenal talent for ice skating and, once she's overcome a few of the entrenched classist attitudes of the figure skating establishment and become the first ever American woman to ever successfully execute the hallowed triple axel in competition she soon becomes a much loved celebrity, not least in her home town of Portland, Oregon.

She's pushed all the way by her domineering, violent, mother, LaVona (equally brilliantly played by Alison Janney). A woman who seems to never change her coat, not even for a wedding, and accompanies Tonya on her first ever date, asking the question "have you two fucked yet?". She's shown these days swigging from a hip flask, with tubes up her nose and a parrot on a shoulder. She genuinely appears not to give a fuck about anything.

Sebastian Stan's Jeff Gillooly (Tonya's former husband), no stranger to ill advised facial hair, is marginally more reflective  and he has much to be reflective about. Not least his abusive controlling behaviour and the dumb schemes him and his friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) dream up to help Tonya's career.

Shawn Eckhardt is a sweaty, overweight, fantasist with the moral rectitude of Boris Johnson and the backbone of a gastropod. He still lives with his parents, has never been laid, but yet imagines he's both an expert on counter-terrorism and a huge figure in the criminal underworld.

A more benevolent character in Tonya's life comes in the form of her coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson), a kind, patient, lady living in a big house and married to a lawyer. Her background is as far from Tonya's as possible but she refuses to look down on her troubled prodigy even when Tonya's behaviour (telling a panel of judges to "suck my dick" doesn't tend to play well) becomes sorely testing.

The aforementioned minor narrator is news guy Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale), a cocky, self-assured, almost cartoon like, investigative journalist who seems more then happy to fake a story if he can't break a story.

Luckily, he's been handed a good one on a plate here. The film takes a while to get to the 'incident' though. It shows us Tonya growing up in Portland, squabbling with mum, and slowly but surely breaking into the red roped world of professional figure skating and even on to the Olympics.

There's lots of ice skates being dejectedly removed and flung to the floor, there's lot of those cold bare breezeblock walls that seem ubiquitous in sports centre around the world, and there's absolutely loads of swearing. F-bombs and c-bombs are dispatched as readily as punches or Salchows in this movie.

It's a little sad in places, it's more often funny (the two 'boobs' Shawn employs for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan make Lance and Martin from Home and Away look like academics), but it's never less than gripping even if it fails to reveal anything truly deep about the human condition. Take it for a fun, if bittersweet, romp about how unfair and random life can be. As the vulnerable yet defiant Tonya says at one point:- "There's no such thing as truth. It's bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants".

She may be funny but Robbie's Tonya is not always likeable (she shifts blame as easily as she draws breath) but she comes across more the victim, maybe as much as a victim as Kerrigan (whose story, perhaps in an attempt to redress the balance, is barely touched upon). Tonya Harding comes across as the victim of her mother, of her aggressive ex-husband, of the buttoned up ice skating establishment, and, perhaps most of all, as she says herself, of our constant desire for sensation and our endless need to cast people into the role of hero or villain. This is a film that skates quite impressively along that thin line between those two roles.

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