Posted December 27, 2017
By JBFC Senior Programmer, Andrew Jupin
I, Tonya is an unconventionally constructed biopic about Tonya Harding, her unlikely rise to the top of the figure skating world, and her super-public fall from grace at the hands of her inept husband, Jeff Gillooly and “bodyguard,” Shawn Eckhardt.
The film was a complete surprise to me. I first heard about it the night I got to Toronto for the festival back in September. Leafing through the various programs, I saw the listing and almost immediately kept flipping. Just another biopic, I thought. Weeks later, at an exhibitor screening in Brooklyn, I was happily proven wrong.
Director Craig Gillespie released the Coast Guard drama The Finest Hours for Disney last year; a film where Chris Pine plays a Guard officer tasked with rescuing the survivors of an oil tanker disaster. A few years before that he was also at The Mouse, directing the Jon Hamm-recruits-baseball-players-in-India family drama, Million Dollar Arm. In 2011, it was a remake of the cult 1980’s vampire film Fright Night, starring Colin Farrell and the late, great Anton Yelchin. Until I, Tonya, his stand out film was Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling—Gosling actually came here for a preview screening of the film back in 2007 which was, somehow, ten years ago already!
The standout element here is undoubtedly the film’s star (and producer) Margot Robbie. In her still pretty new career—she’s only been acting for nine years—Robbie has proven herself to be quite the acting chameleon. To get the full scope of how incredible a performer she is, compare her characters in films like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus, Ficarra and Requa’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and, yes, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (Robbie stands alone as the single highlight, playing the insane and villainous Harley Quinn. Seriously—she’s great in the film!). And, like any Australian actor doing their due diligence, she also appeared in 327 episodes of legendary Australian soap opera, Neighbours.
So it’s no real surprise that she’s turned in another fantastic, and completely different, performance here as Tonya Harding. It’s certainly a hard 180 from the last time audiences saw her on screen earlier this year—those who checked out Goodbye Christopher Robin may remember her as Daphne Milne, the wife of “Winnie the Pooh” creator, Alan Milne.
Additionally, on top of acting in the film and serving as a producer, Robbie also learned how to figure skate for the role. She’s apparently an avid intramural hockey player, so she came to the ice knowing how to skate, but the worlds of hockey and figure skating are obviously very different. She did the majority of her skating on camera, except for the famous triple axel. Very few people on the planet can pull off the move, and at the time of production, two of them were busy training for the Olympics. So when Tonya has to hit the triple in the film, CGI artists were brought in for a little movie magic.
As I was watching the film the first time, I immediately noticed just how close it is, stylistically, to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Now, as different reviews and articles on the film are starting to come in, several others are also making that comparison. The first big tip off is the camera work. Shot by Belgian cinematographer, Nicolas Karakatsanis (Cub, The Drop, Bullhead), the whole film features a camera that is wildly flying around its actors—even to the point where it’s chasing them. This is something you most definitely see in Goodfellas, long tracking shots (the famous one toward the beginning where Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco walk through the restaurant), and down to the camera hurriedly following actors to their cars—think about the last act of Goodfellas as Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, zonked on cocaine, starts believing a helicopter is chasing him.
The film also features several instances of characters breaking the Fourth Wall to talk to the audience. I don’t mean the talking head interview portions, but the actual moments where characters breaks from the film’s reality and speak to you, the viewer. Like at the end when Jeff Gillooly stops in the middle of his sentencing to speak directly into the camera, but none of the other characters in the scene notice what he’s doing.
The final Goodfellas comparison is the use of out of place pop music—sometimes in a scene where it doesn’t really fit at all. Think about how the film ends with the Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” as we’re watching Tonya get up after being slammed in the boxing ring. It’s a catchy tune, but doesn’t entirely fit the tone of the images on screen. The same goes even more for the song right before it, Doris Day singing, “Dream a Little Dream Of Me” as we’re seeing slow motion blood and a mouthpiece flying through the air.
The world of biopics isn’t normally something I like to jump into. The majority of them are fairly cookie cutter products—predictable, stylistically boring, and usually a more-than-obvious attempt at Oscar bait. However, every once in awhile, you get a film like I, Tonya that, while still telling a story based on true events, manages to find a way to surprise you. A film that decides to not only tell a story based on true events, but one about complicated, difficult-to-like people, and does so in a way that’s visually interesting, cinematically engaging, and without taking itself too seriously.
I, Tonya opens Friday, Dec. 29. Tickets are on sale HERE.