“I, Tonya” Review

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Since starting this website I’ve written reviews for a number of biopics, particularly with the rush of Oscar-bait pictures before the Academy Awards in March. I, Tonya sets a new standard against which they should all be judged, as director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers strive to reinvent the public perception of controversial figure skater Tonya Harding through a fast-paced, comically tragic feature that uses the truth as a toy.

Framed in a mockumentary style, Rogers’s script utilises interviews with Tonya, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, her mother LaVona Fay Golden, and her coach Diane Rawlinson as they all share very different perspective on the events leading up to and including the famous 1994 attack on Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The contradictory narration from each character provides a refreshing twist on a narrative technique that’s often used to hide bad writing, as the main figures of the story will interrupt their own scenes to defend themselves from more outlandish accusations or assure the audience that yes – some of these things did really happen. At times Gillespie’s direction seems to be paying homage to classic Scorsese works, particularly the fourth-wall breaking of Goodfellas or the in-the-ring camera work of Raging Bull, but to accuse him of simple imitation would be a disservice. There’s a tremendous speed to this film, with cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis rarely keeping the camera still as it moves through the Harding household during one of Tonya and Jeff’s violent arguments or follows her through her routines. The camera work and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing operate in tandem to join together various moments of Tonya’s life, with days depicted in single unbroken shots and Tanya’s past and future intercut to demonstrate her highs and lows. Similarly, the comic and the tragic are balanced brilliantly, as the hilariously colourful insults the characters throw at each other turn dark as they move into physical and psychological abuse, or moments of genuine vulnerability are met with audacious responses.

Unsurprisingly the characters in I, Tonya operate in a fairly dark moral plane, ranging from the abusive to the dangerously dumb. The entire cast don’t hold back from showcasing the worst traits of their characters as their performances suggest how they came to get that way – particularly Margot Robbie and Alison Janney as Tonya and LaVona. This is easily the best performance of Robbie’s career, presenting the hard edge Harding has had to build as well as the desperation she feels to prove herself. Her expressions often say more than Rogers’ script ever could, looking directly into the camera in moments of ecstatic triumph, deranged determination, and broken despair. Robbie makes a woman who has been vilified by the media remarkably sympathetic without portraying her as an innocent; she’s not America’s sweetheart and she’s not a monster, but a complicated woman who has been abused much of her life. As she herself states, “for a moment I was loved, then I was hated.” One notable moment has Robbie decrying the media while speaking directly at the camera, and it was as if I could feel the real Tonya Harding’s anger extending out from beyond the movie. Janney, who has been consistently excelling in supporting roles since The West Wing finished, is finally given another part to display her considerable talents and range as she hurls out curses and cutting remarks to anyone who challenges her. Janney displays a world-weariness and anger that she takes out on Tonya with a weak excuse that it makes her a better skater, performed in a way that suggests she doesn’t even believe her own lies but can’t connect to her daughter any other way. Rounding out the cast is Sebastian Stan as Jeff, who alternates between doting on Tonya and beating her, and Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Tonya’s deluded incompetent bodyguard who is so ridiculous that Gillespie has to show footage of the real man over the end credits to make it clear that they didn’t invent some of his more absurd claims.

I, Tonya does a remarkable job bringing together multiple perspectives and accounts of Harding’s life, presenting a multifaceted depiction of a woman who has been treated as a one-dimensional joke for much of her life, and yet there is a significant absence that can’t help but prevent the story from reaching its true potential. Nancy Kerrigan is barely featured at all, and spoken about by others rather than getting to speak for herself. It’s unclear whether this omission was due to a real-life refusal from Kerrigan to take part or simply a decision to keep the story centred around Harding, but a film that aims to redeem her can’t quite pull it off by brushing over a figure who is that important to her life. Admittedly I, Tonya never claims to be the absolute truth about Harding, and by presenting reality as the characters remember it Gillespie is able to make a biopic more entertaining and nuanced that most, but with so many voices being heard the absence of such a significant one is distractingly evident.

4 and a half stars.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” Review

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It’s nearly summer, which means that studios are starting to release their ‘prestige’ films for Oscar season. It’s hard not to know one when you see one – they star A-list actors playing real life people in a story based on true historical events, and almost always end with on-screen title cards about what really happened after the events in the film. Bonus points if the credits include the actual version of a picture recreated in the film somewhere. One of the first of such films this year is Simon Curtis’s Goodbye Christopher Robin. Starring Domnhal Gleeson and Margot Robbie as A.A. Milne and his wife, Daphne, it’s based on the true story of Milne writing the original “Winnie-the-Pooh” stories and how their success affected his relationship with his son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston).

A.A. Milne had an interesting life, so it’s not surprising why screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan wanted to make a movie about him, but it feels like they couldn’t decide which aspect they wanted to focus on. Each act of the film feels like it’s telling a completely different story – his struggles adjusting to normal life after fighting in World War 1, the creation of “Winnie-the-Pooh”, and his relationship with Christopher Robin. These stories all explore interesting concepts but none of them are given the time needed to develop, and the last act has to rely on a jarring time-jump in order to wrap everything up in under two hours. I found this particularly frustrating as the story of Christopher Robin’s complex relationship with his father is easily the most interesting part, yet is rushed over with a tacked-on happy ending.

Although the story and it’s format feels conventional, Goodbye Christopher Robin does distinguish itself through some inventive creative flourishes. Milne’s PTSD is effectively represented by combining everyday sounds with the sounds of battle to demonstrate the psychological scars of war, with balloons and champagne corks popping mixing with gunfire and explosions. Ben Smithard’s cinematography captures the natural simplicity of Winnie-the-Pooh’s original illustrations, at times even turning into living drawings. Yet these two elements never quite work together – the film is too bright and warm to give the darker moments of Milne’s life justice, and the happier moments fall flat with a knowledge of how Milne and Robin’s real life relationship was fractured by his books.

This mismatch of styles carries into the performances, with Domhnall Gleeson underplaying his role while Margot Robbie overplays hers. Newcomer Will Tilston is cute as a button as young Christopher Robin but struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes. Kelly Macdonald delivers the most consistently strong performance as the sympathetic nanny yet gets little to actually do beyond delivering comforting words that sound great in a film trailer but hackneyed in real life. Ultimately that’s the biggest problem I found with Goodbye Christopher Robin – it always felt like I was watching a film based on real events, rather than watching anything real.

3 stars.