I, Tonya

Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writer: Steven Rogers


I, Tonya has a well-chosen title. It evokes a phrase that one might hear in a court of law when a statement is given (“I, Tonya, do solemnly swear…”). It suggests a declaration that the testimony we are about to hear shall be given in the named party’s own words and will be the truth as they understand it. That right there is pretty much the premise of this movie. It is a construction of the major events in Tonya Harding’s life based on a series of contradictory, self-serving, irony-free interviews conducted with herself, her ex-husband, her mother, her trainer, and her bodyguard. Somewhere between their varying accounts, the film suggests, is the truth behind the ‘incident’ that ruined Harding’s career and reputation but the film is less interested in learning what that truth is than it is in giving each key player a chance to tell their version of the story and allowing the audience to draw its own conclusion.

We meet Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a young girl (played by McKenna Grace) who is compelled to ice skate by her abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney). As she grows, she is trained exclusively by her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) and is poised to pursue a career as a competitive figure skater. As a young woman she meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and, much to her mother’s disapproval, marries him. Tonya comes to regret her elopement as the marriage soon becomes abusive. It isn’t long before Tonya distinguishes herself as a professional skater, becoming the first American woman to complete the triple axel jump in competition, but finds that the judges disapprove of her ‘white-trash’ persona. After a humiliating loss at the 1992 Olympics, Tonya prepares to give it one more shot at the 1994 games. This leads to the so-called ‘incident’ where Tonya’s main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) suffers an attack organised by Jeff and his friend, Tonya’s incompetent bodyguard Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser).

Gillespie has managed to capture this very particular tone with I, Tonya that could very easily have backfired, one that is able to accommodate both dark comedy and profound earnestness without seeming inconsistent. He allows these characters to speak about what happened in their own words, cutting between dramatic re-enactments and footage of the interviews (albeit, recreated with the actors in their place) and manages to be funny and serious in all the right places. There is a lot of mocking, so much so the film almost borders on parody, as the movie takes shots at the ostentatious, superficial standards of competitive figure skating, the incompetence of those who take part in the ‘incident’, and the fashion and culture of the early 90s. Yet, when the film wants us to feel sympathetic for Tonya, for her difficult upbringing and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, for the uphill battle she had to fight to be taken seriously as a professional sportswoman, and for the way the press and the world at large turned so antagonistically against her without knowing the full story behind the ‘incident’, it does so with complete sincerity.

Robbie is a force of nature as Tonya. She plays the role with the grit and attitude of a scrapper who has had to fight for everything in her life and has had obstacles thrown at her at every step of it. She has the confidence of a champion who is the best at what she does and is at the top of her game and the steeliness of someone who learnt at too young an age that she would need a thick skin to make it. Beneath all that is a buried layer of wretchedness and self-hatred that comes from the years of physical and emotional abuse she has suffered. Matching her blow for blow is Janney as Tonya’s curt, ruthless mother who decided long ago that her daughter would be a champion and is prepared to push her there even if it kills her. She is constantly insulting her daughter (as well as anyone foolish enough to cross her) and manipulating her to get her into the right competitive mindset. The character is a little one-note, but when that note is being played by a pro like Janney that’s alright by me. The comic highlight for me though was Hauser as Eckhart, a man so impossibly delusional that I refused to believe he was a real person until they showed his actual interview over the credits.

One of the interesting things the film reveals about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan is how little Nancy herself had to do with any of it. She barely features as a character in this story and, once the whole ‘incident’ starts to take shape, it becomes clear that she was neither the first, second, third, nor the twentieth reason why the attack actually happened. There were other factors at work, some spontaneous and some years in the making, that led up to this moment. There was the pressure that Tonya felt to become a champion in a sport that was biased against her. There’s the impulsive nature of her husband, his emotional hold over her, and his tendency to solve his problems through aggressive means. There’s the truly inspired stupidity of Eckhart and the goons he hires and their extraordinary ability to screw up their tasks to such a remarkable degree that even Mr. Bean would blush with shame. There’s the way that the press and public, hungry for a sensational story, tried to pit the working-class, uneducated, trailer park girl from Oregon against her pristine, princess-like adversary in a rivalry that neither competitor really felt. The movie does such a good job of bringing all of these different elements together, it is able to make the eventual result feel somehow unpredictable yet inevitable.

I, Tonya is also a wonderfully structured film that is constantly jumping between timelines, changing perspectives, and cutting to talking head pieces without slowing down. There are quirky transitions, fourth-wall breaks, and narrative-stopping digressions, kind of like The Big Short, but the movie never feels like it’s being gimmicky for the sake of being gimmicky. All of these devices play into the idea that this a story being told in the words of those who were involved. In one scene Jeff is describing an incident where Tonya chased him out of their house with a shotgun, an incident that plays out in front of us only for Tonya to pause halfway and say to the camera that this never actually happened. In another the movie takes a moment to take explain to us exactly how the triple axel jump works and why it’s such a big deal, then it allows us to appreciate the moment that Tonya actually performs it in slow-motion. The ice-skating scenes are quite riveting to watch, largely due to the film’s decision to cast a professional skater to perform the challenging routines and pasting Robbie’s face over hers. This means the movie never has to resort to distracting editing or camera tricks in order to compensate for the actress’ limited skills. We get to see these feats performed in clear, unbroken shots.

You wouldn’t think that a movie like this could be that emotionally effective, but by hearing Harding out and depicting her story in her own words without irony, without judgement, and without hostility, the movie was able to bring everything together into a sympathetic portrait of a woman who has suffered her own share of injustices. What we see may or may not be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but that’s not really the point. The movie is really about things like competition, class, abuse, sensationalism, and scandal. It’s about a woman who had the odds stacked against her because she came from the wrong background and was unfairly maligned and cast as the villain in the story that unfolded, not because she was guilty or culpable it what happened, but because that’s what the people wanted her to be. Here you see what the whole affair was like from Tonya’s perspective and in the end when she bursts into tears upon being banned from professional skating, it’s as heartbreaking a moment as you’ll see in any other sports movie.

★★★★

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The Girl on the Train

Cast: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Édgar Ramírez, Lisa Kudrow

Director: Tate Taylor

Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson


This is a film that has garnered a lot of comparisons with Gone Girl, leading many to dismiss The Girl on the Train as the lesser of the two. Both of these movies are suburban thrillers detailing the dark or even sinister secrets that lurk beneath the everyday facades these characters wear. Both mysteries are focused on the sudden disappearance of a beautiful, blonde suburban housewife. Both films play around with time and perspective. Both films share a similar tone and visual style. Both stories are based on bestsellers written by women. Maybe this film is intentionally trying to replicate what Fincher and Flynn did with their film to attain that same level of acclaim, or maybe it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that Gone Girl happened to be made two years earlier. Although I do think this film possesses positive qualities that make for a good movie, they were sadly not enough to make me forget that it’s been done before and it’s been done better.

Every day Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) commutes to the city on a route that takes her directly past the neighbourhood where she used to live. There she can see her old house where her ex-husband Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) lives with his mistress-turned-wife Anna Boyd (Rebecca Ferguson) and their new-born daughter. During her trips Rachel becomes increasingly fascinated with the house three doors up where the alluring Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) lives with her husband Scott (Luke Evans). Seeing them together in the briefest of glimpses, Rachel fantasies about what a perfect marriage they must have while she drowns her own sorrows in the bottle. This fantasy is then shattered when Rachel spots Megan kissing another man on her balcony. Enraged and inebriated, she resolves to confront Megan before blacking out and awakening in her bedroom with an injured head. When it is revealed that Megan has since gone missing and has been presumed dead, Rachel’s erratic behaviour makes her the top suspect in Detective Riley’s (Allison Janney) investigation.

In comparing these two films I found myself recalling a forgettable sci-fi movie I once saw called The Thirteenth Floor, a film about a virtual reality. It had a fascinating concept and impressive (for the time) visuals but was ultimately a victim of its clumsy writing and inexpert direction. Its biggest weakness though was that it happened to come out just a couple of months after The Matrix. In a nutshell, that’s kind of how I feel about this film. The Girl on the Train could be intriguing at times and has a strong leading lady in Blunt, but the issues it suffers from keep it far from attaining greatness. When compared to Gone Girl, this film is dead in the water. The film’s underlying mystery is a whodunit (in contrast to Gone Girl which is more of a howdunit or whydunit) with a ‘who’ that is pretty easy to guess. The real story is of three women and the fears and flaws they suffer that drive the action that occurs, but these women aren’t as complex or as compelling as the film clearly wants them to be. The direction Taylor brings is pretty standard and never surprises, not even in the surprise twist when we learn that things are not the way we’ve been led to believe. Thus the suspense, the captivation and the artistry that made Gone Girl such a great watch is either lacking or absent as far as this film is concerned.

Blunt puts everything she has into her performance and it definitely counts for a lot. She plays a wretched, severely alcoholic woman punishing herself day after day for the shambles that was her marriage. She is a miserably lonely creature, staring longingly through the window towards this seemingly perfect life that has been lost and denied to her. She recalls memories of how her marriage to Tom was wrecked by her excessive drinking and his infidelity and jumps back and forth between inconsolable despair and antagonistic rage. Blunt is able to be both subtle and outrageous when the script calls for it and single-handedly makes this film. If only the other two women were half as compelling. One is a bored housewife looking for an escape. The other is a bored housewife looking for passion. The two women, along with their husbands, are so nondescript as characters that I could only remember who was who through face recognition alone.

Still, when it comes right down to it, I can’t say that The Girl on the Train was a bad film. It has a complicated and engaging character at its helm played superbly by a marvellous actress. While I wasn’t particularly interested in the story or its mystery, I was invested to the extent that I wanted to see Rachel pick herself up, get her act together, and turn out all right. If the film had the gripping sense of pace, the captivatingly ambiguous tone or the wonderfully astute camerawork of Gone Girl, then we might have had the suspenseful suburban thriller that the writer and director were clearly going for. In a universe where Gone Girl didn’t exist perhaps the issues I had with The Girl on the Train would not have been so glaring. The reality though is that no movie exists in a vacuum. The comparison between these two films is as appropriate as it is inevitable and the difference in quality is clear. Everything this film does badly, the other does well. Everything this film does well, the other does better.

★★★

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Jane Goldman


In a perfect world any film that combines the concepts of X-Men and Groundhog Day with Tim Burton’s style ought to be a guaranteed recipe for success. Sadly our world is far from perfect and so is this film. Burton, a singular visual director who practically created his own genre as he produced hit after hit in the 80s and 90s, has maintained an uneven career for the better part of two decades now. For every Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, he has made a Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland. Nowadays the tropes that once made him an innovator and a visionary, from the gothic sets and costumes to the creepy and inventive visuals to the weird and eccentric characters, tend to lean more towards cliché and self-parody. Style over substance isn’t always a bad thing when the style is in itself something to be admired, but it is deadly once that style becomes tiring or is used half-heartedly.

Jake Portman first heard about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children from his grandfather Abe (Terrence Stamp) in his bedtime stories. The house, so Abe says, is where he grew up along with a collection of other children who possess extraordinary abilities. After his grandfather dies a gruesome death Jake, on the advice of his therapist Dr. Golan (Allison Janney) sets off for the Welsh island with his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) to visit the house. At first all he finds is the estate’s remains after it was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb in 1943. Later he is found by some of the Peculiar Children who then lead him into a cave that transports them back in time to that very year. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), it turns out, is able to keep her house and the children hidden from outsiders by storing them in a time loop. With her are the Peculiar Children, including Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), a girl with the ability to fly, and Enoch O’Connor (Finlay MacMillan), a necromancer. Miss Peregrine’s Home however is threatened by strange creatures called Hollows, led by the sinister shapeshifter Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), and Jake is the only one who can help them.

The story hits the usual notes you might expect from a Burton movie. It focuses on a social outcast who finds meaning and belonging in a weird and wonderful world that differs from our own. Burton however does not bring the conviction or the commitment to this story that is so readily apparent in his earlier work. His style is evident in the film’s subdued colour palette and eerie designs, but the world he creates feels so spiritless and indifferent. There is no enthusiasm in the pursuit and discovery of the strange, no sensation to the ethereal nature of this universe, no wonder in the meeting of the innocent with the macabre. The man who used to speak volumes in every frame and who could always find charm and beauty in the strange and sinister now resorts to gratuitous exposition and depicts the peculiar for little more than peculiarity’s sake. Apart from the few brief glimpses we are allowed into Burton’s twisted and creative soul, the film is without life and originality.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the protagonist Jake, an introverted teenager with the personality of a cardboard box. In spite of Butterfield’s best efforts (putting aside his attempt at an American accent), Jake is an utterly forgettable and wooden character who cannot conjure a single emotion for love, wonder or pain. The shoe-horned romance he shares with Emma is so contrived and stale that I almost thought I was watching a gender-swapped rendition of Twilight. Accompanying him is a collection of superficially odd characters whose personalities are defined by their abilities and little else. Of all the actors whose talents went to dismal waste in this film (a list that includes Terence Stamp, Allison Janney, Judi Dench and Kim Dickens), only two brought any life to their performances. One is Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, an actress whose ability to chew scenery rivals that of Helena Bonham Carter. The other is Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who lives for the absurd and excessive.

The movie’s one other redeeming feature is its climax which is as enjoyably over the top as it is ludicrously nonsensical. As I approached the third act I found that I wasn’t in the least bit invested in the showdown that was to take place between the bland, characterless goodies and the painfully incompetent baddies. That attitude remains unchanged, but at least I got to watch a battle between a horde of invisible eye-gouging monsters and a legion of stop-motion Jason and the Argonauts skeletons in the middle of a seaside carnival. It comes nowhere close to saving the film, but I’ll take what I can get. All things considered, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not the worst work Burton has produced recently but it is a testament to how far he has fallen since the days of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. While I can hardly say that the climatic battle is reason enough to watch this film, it is at the very least an assurance that some of the magic is still there. I hope to see more of it in his next project.

★★