Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Film Review: I, Tonya tries far too hard to be far too many things it's not

"The Goodfellas of figure skating" is a review quote tossed around all over I, Tonya's marketing. It was in the trailers, it was on the posters, I'm fairly sure that if you bumped into any credited cast member on the street they would've been contractually bound to tell you that I, Tonya was "The Goodfellas of figure skating". Granted, that's high praise - but high praise comes with a price. I, Tonya shares many similarities to Goodfellas - a plot involving crime, a high brow sense of energy, fourth wall breaking - but it's very difficult to say that Craig Gillespie's film executes any of it particularly well. The Goodfellas of figure skating? Well, no.

Margot Robbie is Tonya Harding, a figure skater since the age of six who has grown up with an abusive mother (Allison Janney) hanging over her like a noose. She's entering adulthood now, and starting to make her way into some serious figure skating competitions. With her new found beau Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) on her side, Tonya attempts to navigate her tough life and do well at the sport to which she's dedicated her life. It's all based on true events and real people, which might explain why I, Tonya staggers around so limply in its first half. With very little to explore other than Tonya's relationship with her mother, Gillespie's film spends a good hour in desperate search of both something to say and something to do.

Eventually we find our focus: the film will be about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 Winter Olympics. It takes about an hour for the film to reach this stage, but not much is really accomplished across this time. Janney's character all but disappears in the film's second half, and her performance thus far has consisted of little more than snarling and swearing - not particularly impressive for one of this year's Oscar frontrunners. I, Tonya's use of an interview based narrative structure to form an unreliable narration is occasionally fun, but mostly it lands like a gimmick - this story could probably have been told very easily without it. Steven Rogers' script discusses the eyes with which audiences viewed Harding during her career, yet at no point in the film - interview, fourth wall breaking or otherwise - does the film attempt to let us see how she really feels about this.

A lot of I, Tonya appears to be held at arm's length. At its core this is a dark, disturbing true story, and it's like Gillespie is unsure of how to tackle it. The film tries to laugh its way through such a tale, but the tonal shifts are handled awkwardly - we find ourselves chuckling at some snazzy editing one moment before watching Harding beaten by her husband the next. A number of times in my busy screening of the film, people laughed at moments that I'm not entirely convinced were intended to be humorous - I, Tonya's tonal confusion runs to its core, and the result is a film that frequently gives off the impression that it has no idea what it's really doing.

It's nice to see Robbie in a rare leading role - especially one of this calibre - but it's also tough not to feel disappointed that Rogers' script hardly ever gives her any truly substantial material. Robbie clearly has a blast with the role, and in terms of performance alone this is probably her strongest work to date, so it's a shame she's rarely given any standout moments to remember post-viewing. Besides a wordless shot of Tonya applying her makeup pre-skate, her face flickering devastatingly between honest tears and a forced smile, there's very little here for either Robbie or us to sink our teeth into. It all works on surface level, but neither Rogers nor Gillespie give Robbie the chance to make this role her own - I could make a frustratingly extensive list of other actors who could've given the exact same performance.

The whole film comes coupled with a sense of lost identity. The forced music choices seem to give off a retro rocky vibe, but nothing in the film's screenplay matches that tone. The fourth wall breaking attempts to add some personality to what we're watching, but Rogers integrates it into the film so slowly and apprehensively that it never fully clicks as part of I, Tonya's identity. There are fleeting moments of inspired editing, and Robbie really does give it her all, but there are just too many contradictory moments and too little heart for everything here to come together. We're left with a film that tries far too hard to be far too many things it doesn't quite have the conviction to fully dive into. I, Tonya repeatedly emphasises just how great Harding was on the ice, but the film itself comes across like a first timer, clinging on to the walls of the rink as it gracelessly stumbles its way around.

In A Sentence

Despite a career best performance from Margot Robbie in the title role, I, Tonya lacks the courage to follow through on its promises, resulting in a film as jarringly messy as it is soulless.

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