"Based on the insane true story" the trailer says, and it is not wrong. The tale of the trailer trash girl who rose to the peak of a sport that seemed wholly resistant to her, only then set the world on fire at the centre of a drama that became a farce and ultimately a gripping rivalry of personal ambition and determination. Grace versus power. Poise versus presence. Class versus Character.
The film feels like a TV life story movie for all of about the first five minutes, before it tips over the edge of the peaks of a roller coaster ride of outstanding performances, gifted with a delightful script and unassailable source material. Janney as Lavon Fay (Harding's mother) is blistering from the opening. A role as the overbearing mother whose will to push her daughter is woven into her dependency on her. She is captivating as an American pantomime villain of a character, coarse, outrageous, violent and insecure. Frankly, if she does not walk away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress the awards are moribund.
The film unfolds as a series of latter day interviews with the protagonists contradict each other. There is undeniable humour and horror to be had from this and Craig Gillespie plays out the drama at dizzying speed. The interviews are lifted directly from interviews with the actual personalities involved. Originally a project to research the events for the film, they formed the basis of the film itself. As the credits roll, we are treated to segments of these interviews which merely reinforce the impressive performances and astounding flaws in the protagonists. The film accentuates the absurdity of the story and fails to ever really reveal anything profound about the protagonist. The incredulous series of events are undoubtedly the star, with the 1994 plot to attack Nancy Kerrigan as the unsteady elephant on the ice overshadowing the entire narrative. Perhaps the title is misleading, it could so have easily been called "Tonya & Geoff" or "Mommy Fearest", but the lack of resolution on the motivations or knowledge Tonya Harding has of the events that unfold around her are pushed furiously under the currents of an increasingly absurdist tale of stupidity.
It is jam packed with laughs, gasps and outright jaw dropping astonishment. The design, wardrobe, soundtrack and facial hair pin the 80's and 90's feel with aplomb and the knowing turns to the camera as characters break role and point out their role or lack of it in the events being played out gives some of the best humour in the piece.
Sebastian Stan is wondrous as the simultaneously fragile and aggressive Jeff Gillooly, Tonya's husband, All eighties man child in denim and Freddie Mercury moustache, it is his basement dwelling fantasist side kick Shawn, played by Paul Walter Hauser that unbelievably enough turns out to outshine the other larger than life extraordinary cast of characters who come before him. His sheer immaturity is only out done by the pin point performance that delivers it.
There are moments of unconvincing CGI for the physical feats achieved on the ice, but it hardly detracts from the raw energy and mesmeric quality of the events. This film is a perfect storm of emotional turmoil, narrative twists and compelling performances. This film will be all the more enjoyable if you are not familiar with the life story of Harding, but if you, like me, sat to watch Harding and Kerrigan circle each other on the ice while warming up before their turns at the 1994 Winter Olympics, to watch them meet each others gaze or brush each other aside before setting themselves targets of physical achievement against a backdrop of mental turmoil...you will revel in this telling of the backstory.