8 March 2018

I, Tonya review

"Good artists copy; great artists steal". It's a fairly well-known saying that speaks to the way art evolves over time as the innovations of influential artists seep into the work of those who come along later, but it's worth breaking down what exactly the phrase means by "steal". Mimicry or simple replication isn't enough; you have to make something your own in order to steal it, add your own unique spin or use it in a particular way that stamps your name on it, and that means that I, Tonya - a biopic whose style was quite clearly heavily influenced by the work of Martin Scorsese - doesn't qualify as an act of theft. Appropriately then, it also doesn't qualify as great art - merely quite good.

At the very least it's a vast improvement over the pale Scorsese imitation that David O. Russell has been doing for the last few years, thanks in large part to director Craig Gillespie's much firmer grasp of how to make the particulars of this style - such as the fourth-wall breaking narration, or the eclectic soundtrack - work on-screen. But just as important to why I, Tonya works where films like Joy don't is the simple fact that the story of disgraced American figure skater Tonya Harding is both a) actually worth telling and b) well-suited to this style of film-making, hitting all the required funny, sad and tense beats as it focuses on a number of vibrant, almost larger-than-life characters who you actually want to learn more about and see interact with one another.

And I, Tonya certainly delivers there, making the decision to spend the bulk of its running time not on the incident that Tonya Harding is now mostly well known for (her alleged involvement in the attack on rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan) but on the relationships that define her as a person. You've got her relationship with her neglectful at best mother, a cold and uncaring figure who pushed her to be a great skater no matter the cost; her relationship to her abusive and at times downright psychotic husband, who I, Tonya posits as the main reason for Harding's eventual downfall; and her relationship to the world of figure skating, the gatekeepers of which never wanted to give a redneck, working class girl a fair shot. It's a good script that knows when to focus on which relationship and gives equal importance to all three, but what really elevates I, Tonya from being an OK Scorsese-lite into a film that's genuinely worth seeing are the truly great performances given by Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney and especially Margot Robbie, who I simply didn't think was capable of this kind of powerhouse performance. Needless to say, her Oscar nomination for Best Actress is incredibly well-earned, and I'm already really looking forward to seeing what she does next now that she's proved she has this kind of talent.

But it's also worth keeping in mind that without lead performances this strong, I, Tonya probably would've been all but forgotten about quite quickly. It might be a good Scorsese impression, but it's still just an impression, never living up to that from which it takes so much and at times feeling oddly forced in its execution. Sure, it's entertaining when these character break the fourth wall in order to talk to the audience, or when the actors play older versions of their characters giving interviews, but neither of these quirks appear consistently enough for them to feel like a natural part of this film when they do show up, and there are a few scenes early on that quite badly misjudge if the events happening on screen should be portrayed for comedic effect or not. Funnily enough, I, Tonya's best and most memorable scenes end up being the ones least like the kind of thing you might find in a Scorsese film, Gillespie dropping the film's borrowed aesthetic in order to simply capture a moment, whether it be an extravagant, monumental victory on the ice or a quiet scene that sees Harding break down as she applies her make-up. This is what Gillespie needed more of to truly make I, Tonya his own - not fake clips of fake interviews or era-appropriate needle-drops, but varied emotional moments that genuinely resonate with the audience.

And yet in spite of its easily identifiable shortcomings, I still really enjoyed I, Tonya for what it is - a mostly quite well-directed film telling an interesting story that's bolstered by a handful of performances so good that they'd make it worth seeing even if the rest of the film was outright bad, which it isn't. Yes, it's a touch overly derivative and at times stumbles in its attempts to replicate the films that it's quite obviously influenced by, but it's also still a really entertaining couple of hours that I can't see many people walking away from disappointed.

4 stars

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