Skating on the icy rink of disaster by Richard Jones

A look at I, Tonya (MA 15+)

TonyaEvery four years those of us with a taste for sport tune in to the appointed commercial TV channel for the coverage of the Winter Olympics.

And figure skating rates as one of the highlights at each of those icy spectacles with the women far more watchable then the men.

In director Craig Gillespie’s tale of the rise and fall of American champion Tonya Harding we see trailer trash Tonya (Margot Robbie) competing out on the ice with well-to-do middle class rivals for a spot as one of the USA’s champion skaters, and a berth in the American Olympic team.

She has to sew her own costumes, cope with a brutish non-supportive mother and deal with a violent boyfriend who later becomes her husband. Tonya lives in poverty in Portland, Oregon.

Director Craig Gillespie (an Aussie like Robbie) deals with the back story in a creative way.

He fashions it like a mock documentary: husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) sits uneasily in front of the camera, Tonya’s mother LaVona (Alison Janney) is on the couch with her oxygen cylinders, an ever present cigarillo smoking away and a little parrot perched on one shoulder while Tonya gives us her version, perched beside the kitchen table.

It works brilliantly especially when a key journalist – tabloid TV reporter Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) – who reported on the drama involving Harding and key rival Nancy Kerrigan sits in front of his present day computer and gives us his spin on the story.

What, of course, all this leads up to is the knee-capping of Kerrigan in early 1994 at the trials leading up to selection for the ‘94 Lillehammer Winter Olympics.

Gillespie leads us to think Tonya knew nothing of the assault.

We understand the attack on Nancy was organised by Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and involved two of the most inept crooks I’ve ever seen on film. They were so bad that everyone in the cinema we were in dissolved into fits of laughter. It was that sort of film – short bursts of comedic brilliance overlaid by absolute tragedy.

We’re led to believe that Tonya knew nothing of the plan to attack Nancy Kerrigan. Hubby Gillooly also says he was in the dark although he squirms a lot in his seat as the camera zooms in on him during a ‘true confessions’ moment.

Gillooly isn’t a very nice man. And an even worse husband.

He frequently hits Tonya, knocking her to the floor more than once. Another comedic scene brilliantly done is the one where Tonya fires a shotgun at the fleeing hubby, ejects the shell and looks straight at the camera: “I never did this,” she says, straight-faced.

And that’s what she says about the infamous “incident”. True, she might have known about Gillooly’s threatening letter to Kerrigan.

Gillooly eventually went on trial along with Shawn and the man said to have carried out the truncheon attack on Kerrigan, Shane Skant.

All three plus Skant’s extraordinarily inept getaway driver served prison terms.

Yet Harding was handed only a probation, a community service order and a $100,000 fine after pleading guilty to obstructing justice.

The charge was that she failed to tell police what she knew of the plot.

“The incident” spelt the end of Tonya’s ice skating career when she was banned for life by the governing body of US skating.

So at the age of 23 she takes up landscaping and house painting and even for a time had a career in women’s boxing.

We see a few of these bouts – shortened to just the main action – where Tonya wins a couple, loses a couple.

She’s back where she started. In the very poor strata of redneck American life.

The casting crew can hardly have done a better job. Allison Janney is a dead lookalike for scary mum LaVona (and has a 2018 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) while chubby, constantly snacking Paul Walter Hauser is identical in appearance to Tonya’s self-appointed and hopeless real-life bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt.

As we see, with the credits rolling, Shawn in real life continues to spout his delusions of having international espionage expertise.

I hope we see a lot more of Hauser.

And importantly Robbie has the powerful legs, just like ace skater Harding. You see a lot of leg shots in the sport of ice-skating, particularly with Tonya becoming the first woman to successfully complete a triple axel spin in women’s competition.

I’m not sure whether Robbie will win the Oscar for best female performance. She’s up aganst formidable opposition in Meryl Streep and Frances McDormand, to name just two.

But if Janney doesn’t win the Best Supporting Actress award for her turn as foul-mouthed and chain-smoking LaVona something’s very wrong with the voting system.

She’s the scariest mother I’ve seen on film since Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest. And that’s a long time ago.

Fortunately for the sport of ice skating, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan (who won silver in Lillehammer while Tonya finished eighth) the media’s focus very quickly was switched elsewhere.

The OJ Simpson drama was unfolding and the TV cameras and crews and reporters had bigger fish to fry.

   

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