I, Tonya is a tabloid-style retelling of skater Tonya Harding’s life, reducing the main players to exotic working class playthings for A-listers looking to demonstrate their range
I, Tonya (15) **
Dark River (15) ***
Finding Your Feet (12A) ***
Wahether or not you remember the tabloid furore surrounding former US Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and her alleged involvement in the kneecapping of sporting rival Nancy Kerrigan, the disgraced 1990s athlete deserves a better film than I, Tonya – a grotesque, jokey, dumbed-down treatment of a sad and sordid story. Nominated for three Oscars, it’s the kind of movie that treats its working class subjects as exotic playthings for its A-list cast, allowing the likes of Margot Robbie, who plays Tonya, and Bafta-winner Allison Janney, cast as her monstrous mother LaVona Golding, to demonstrate their range by revelling in the vulgar details of Harding’s white trash roots. All rabbit-skin fur coats and nae knickers, it’s a condescending, exploitative piece of awards bait that desperately tries to disguise its lack of insight through mocking self-awareness.
The film announces its hip, flip tone via a title card: what follows, it reads, is “based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Jeff, played by Captain America: The Winter Soldier co-star Sebastian Stan, spent time in prison for the part he played in the attack on Kerrigan and he and Tonya are swiftly introduced – alongside the story’s other main players: LaVona, Tonya’s coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), her delusional bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) – in standard mock doc fashion, a structure that allows the film to jump back and forth in time while providing a running commentary from characters who repeatedly break the fourth wall to explain what’s happening. It’s a technique that was used to great effect recently in The Big Short (which also featured Robbie), but there’s a world of difference between the gilded lives of super rich investment bankers and the gutter-dwellers of I, Tonya. Indeed, the film’s failure to take this economic disparity into account is a further sign of how tone deaf journeyman director Craig Gillespie (Their Finest Hours) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You) are to their characters. Whatever empathy Robbie has for Harding is undermined by the film’s mistaken belief that embracing the juicy tabloid nature of her story is the same thing as critiquing it. It’s not and at its worst, the film makes Harding a pop culture punchline once again.
Which is just odd given her story is plagued by domestic violence. The film spends the first hour running through Tonya’s hardscrabble upbringing with a pushy mother who bullies her into succeeding through a combination of fear, psychological intimidation and the occasional stabbing. The second hour, which sees her fall into a bad marriage with Jeff, is focused on the build-up to, and fall-out from, the attack on Kerrigan, which the film presents as the end-point of the story of a defiant anti-establishment rebel whose talent was largely denied by the gatekeepers of a sport whose image of graceful femininity she didn’t fit.
Though the film doesn’t deny that Harding– who did her routines to ZZ Top, wore blue nail polish and smoked and drank before big competitions – was sometimes her own worst enemy, it’s not actually very good at capturing the extent to which she could out-skate almost everyone. Even with a combination of body doubles and CGI, the big sporting moments – like being the first US figure skater to land the triple axel in competition – feel anticlimactic. The film’s approach to character and theme, meanwhile, feels oddly in tune with Kerrigan’s attackers: this is a movie that hammers us with blunt, declamatory dialogue and blunter soundtrack choices that spell out exactly what’s happening on screen without adding any period texture. There’s a dunderheaded literalness to everything in I, Tonya, something the filmmakers seem to have mistaken for authenticity, but which comes across more as sneering class contempt. Like everyone in the movie, they’ve under-estimated their protagonist.
British filmmakers seem to be embracing a sort of pastoral realism at the moment. Following Hope Dixon Leach’s The Levelling and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, Clio Barnard’s new film Dark River is set against the harsh backdrop of a working farm and the toll this takes on the damaged souls working the land. Ruth Wilson commits fully to the sheep-shearing, rabbit-skinning duties of lead character Alice, a transient agricultural worker who returns to her family’s farm in Yorkshire following the death of her father. Discovering the place has gone to ruin in the years since she abruptly left, she sets about restoring it, but soon clashes with her sibling (Mark Stanley), whose anger at his sister is connected to the traumatic childhood that forced her to run away in the first place. If it feels overly familiar in the light of its aforementioned contemporaries (The Levelling especially), it’s still a beautifully made and acted film and Barnard (who made The Arbor and The Selfish Giant) manages to pull off the tricksy resolution without it feeling contrived.
Though clearly designed to satisfy the undemanding audiences who lapped up The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, Finding Your Feet manages to transcend some of its more egregiously patronising and cringeworthy moments thanks to deeply felt performances by Imelda Staunton and Celia Imrie, cast here as estranged sisters who reconnect when Staunton’s marriage falls apart. Timothy Spall’s good too as Staunton’s potential new love interest and though subplots involving dance competitions and terminal illness abound, it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been. ■