January 17, 2018

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A rivalry renewed

Figure skating film revisits the Harding vs. Kerrigan saga

Donald Trump notwithstanding, 2017 was a year when many of the high and mighty players of the entertainment world were brought low by revelations of abuses of power, including movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, actors Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman and TV host Matt Lauer.

Somehow, these circumstances make I, Tonya a refreshingly perverse cap-off of 2017. The film by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) gives fresh consideration to Tonya Harding, a pariah/punchline of the 1990s.

Harding, remember, was accused of complicity in an assault on skating rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. While she qualified for the Olympics that year, the incident destroyed Harding’s career on ice. And it forever doomed her to be lumped together with the idiots who took a more active hand in facilitating the assault, including Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly and her dumb, delusional “bodyguard” Shawn Eckhardt.

Gillespie, working from a script by Steven Rogers, is not naive enough to suggest Harding is entirely trustworthy as the narrator of her own story. But the film does make a compelling case that Harding was a brilliant and chronically underrated athlete subverted by prejudice against her impoverished background... not to mention the reprehensible people in her personal orbit.

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Donald Trump notwithstanding, 2017 was a year when many of the high and mighty players of the entertainment world were brought low by revelations of abuses of power, including movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, actors Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman and TV host Matt Lauer.

Somehow, these circumstances make I, Tonya a refreshingly perverse cap-off of 2017. The film by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) gives fresh consideration to Tonya Harding, a pariah/punchline of the 1990s.

Harding, remember, was accused of complicity in an assault on skating rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. While she qualified for the Olympics that year, the incident destroyed Harding’s career on ice. And it forever doomed her to be lumped together with the idiots who took a more active hand in facilitating the assault, including Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly and her dumb, delusional "bodyguard" Shawn Eckhardt.

Gillespie, working from a script by Steven Rogers, is not naive enough to suggest Harding is entirely trustworthy as the narrator of her own story. But the film does make a compelling case that Harding was a brilliant and chronically underrated athlete subverted by prejudice against her impoverished background... not to mention the reprehensible people in her personal orbit.

Set up like a documentary — it was in fact largely inspired by a 30 for 30 documentary about Harding’s career — the film offers up interviews and dramatic recreations of Harding’s life. Margot Robbie plays the adult Harding as a bit of a mess, the product of a broken and abusive home, justifiably resentful of her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) who denied her affection in her drive to turn her into a figure skating champion. Small wonder she ends up marrying the first guy to show her attention. That would be Jeff (Sebastian Stan), a none-too-bright guy inclined to violence when his wife proves wilful, which was evidently often.

On the ice, Harding could deliver the goods with the help of trainer Dianne Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), a woman who gives Harding glimpses of graceful living. Harding was the first female skater to execute a triple Axel in competition. But her homemade costumes and her preference for ZZ Top over light classics in her dance routines turned judges against her. (Harding’s contemporary Elvis Stojko could get away with rock routines; Harding could not.)

The film moves like a runaway train towards the assault on Kerrigan (who is, to the film’s discredit, a bit of a cipher here, save for a brief clip that suggests that prior to the attack, they were close enough to shotgun beer together when they shared accommodations during competitions). Indeed, Harding cynically suggests the violence is what the audience came to see, one of several moments director Gillespie effectively accuses the audience of complicity in Harding’s story, including a deliciously uncomfortable moment when Harding confronts the audience with their prejudice against her blue-collar origins.

If a movie is provocatively challenging the audience’s own prejudices, it helps to have a solid cast. Robbie has as much brass as Harding when it comes to taking on the challenge of fleshing out a character who defies our natural instinct for identification. And playing a mother from hell, Janney takes that test to the next level, gleefully attacking the role with the fierce gusto of a wire-hanger wielding Joan Crawford.

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

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