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A closeup shot of Tonya Harding’s skate crushing a lit cigarette serves as a visual representation of the figure skater as a whole in I, Tonya, a biography of her life and the events that led to her controversial end in the sport. Harding was a force in the skating world: unrefined, rebellious, and unapologetic but with a raw talent that world had never seen before or since. It makes sense Harding’s tenure in the figure skating world ended in controversy. I, Tonya, directed by Craig Gillespie, doesn’t shy from the darker turns her life took, the film’s screenplay working from rumor and the unreliable narration of the people around her. It’s a stunning story, dark and comical in equal turns, and the film relays the events in splendid fashion as well as giving us a star-making turn by Australian actress Margot Robbie as the eponymous character.
That controversial end to her skating career came when Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), had her knee bashed in after a routine practice session leading up to the 1994 National Figure Skating Championship. It was an incident directly caused by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and his friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), but the involvement Harding, herself, had is still left to speculation. The film, instead, relies on the order of events the way Harding and Gillooly tell it.
It also relies on the way Harding describes her upbringing: The verbal, mental, and even physical abuse she endured at an early age from her overbearing mother, LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), as well as similar treatment once she and Gillooly fell in love. Harding was never fully accepted into the figure skating world, her uncouth nature and lack of a traditional household seeming to have more of an effect than her actual skills on the ice. It was her involvement in the Kerrigan incident, however, that both made her a household name in the early ’90s, as well as ended her hopes of ever competing in figure skating again.
With a screenplay by Steven Rogers, I, Tonya utilizes those rumors and assumptions of its subjects to the tell the Harding story never pulling back on the painful details of the woman’s life. The screenplay never allows itself to be too self-serious, though, the ridiculous nature of much of it bleeding in with often-comical results. It’d be even more comical if it weren’t such a realistic depiction of one woman’s struggle with abuse and her attempt to make a name for herself based on skill alone. That was not to be, however, and the whole, outrageous ordeal plays out in sharp and subversive form.
Taking the helm, Craig Gillespie keeps the momentum of Rogers screenplay at an absolute high. I, Tonya is brimming with energy, the meticulous and sometimes jarring cuts putting the film up there with the best Martin Scorsese has delivered. The film is loaded with quirky characters, as well, and often calls to mind the most eccentric offerings we’ve seen from the Coen Brothers. I, Tonya‘s message is clear, though, the abuse the woman endured moving from her mother to her husband to the nation as a whole, as the 24-hour, news cycle being established at the time the events occurred made Harding a villain we could all root against.
In the title role, Margot Robbie brings a ferocity to the part, as unapologetic and fearless in her performance as the figure skater was in her life. The film wouldn’t work quite as well as it does without a force in the eponymous role, and Robbie quickly proves herself as the star of the show. She brings a vulnerability to the role that aids the victim side of Harding’s life, but the sly look in her eye and downright frightening manner in which she treats those around her is never shied away. In a year that includes a vast slate of strong performances from powerful women, Robbie is an absolute standout.
The supporting players help bring the entire film through, as well. Stan does a fine job stowing away his Winter Soldier persona for the goofy and unlikable Gillooly, the actor turning in a performance that would be outright comical if the character he’s playing wasn’t so scummy. Janney, too, brings a strong sense of comic timing and likability to a character that would, on paper, be considered villainous. Hauser as the laughably inept best friend also gives a memorable performance and offers up some of the film’s best, overall laughs.
The subject matter of I, Tonya could have easily been given the dark and dreadful treatment, as well, but Rogers and Gillespie have turned in a work that is both entertaining and eye-opening. The whole Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan tale was one that captured a nation, one of the first events in history that the 24-hour, news cycle rammed down the throats of American viewers. Naturally, there had to be a victim and a villain for easy consumption, but I, Tonya takes that pill and makes it a little more difficult to swallow all the while delivering on one of the best films of the year.
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