Out on Friday February 23
Margot Robbie presents the Tonya Harding story – on ice. Clio Barnard once again turns rural life into an enthralling destination.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of I, Tonya, Dark River, Native, Birth of the Dragon, Finding Your Feet, The Ice King, and The Touch.
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Chances are that if you’ve heard of Tonya Harding – the disgraced US figure-skating champ allegedly connected to an attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan – you’ve already formed an opinion of her. And, if you haven’t, you won’t see this movie. Both notions are worth reconsidering.
Billed, baitingly, as “totally true”, Craig Gillespie’s tell-all mixes (fake) vox pops with more conventional scenes, letting the main players recount their stories, however pathetic. Worst of the bunch is Tonya’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a sad little man with a moustache to match.
As Tonya’s mother, Allison Janney is on fearsome form, exhaling vicious put-downs like cigarette smoke. When young Tonya complains about the other girls calling her a redneck, her mum’s advice is simple: “Spit in their milk.” Margot Robbie, meanwhile, is excellent as Harding, both defiantly unloveable and vulnerable. When she pleads, “I’m a real person,” you don’t doubt her.
I, Tonya is a far cry from the folksy sensitivity of director Craig Gillespie’s earlier Lars and the Real Girl (2007), while the witty screenplay by Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You) offers a scattergun character assassination that obliterates all comers. As Tonya rises through the sporting ranks, we watch her endure horrendous abuse from her mother. The most shocking moment comes from the juxtaposition of her line, “He was the first boy I ever loved,” with Gilooly smashing her face into a mirror. “What?” she demands, practically to a record-scratch sound effect. “Nancy gets hit one time and the whole world shits!”
It’s only when we get on the ice that the ugliness relents. Thanks to Nicolas Karakatsanis’ stunning cinematography, Robbie’s grace and some seamless stunt work, the scenes of Harding skating take your breath away for all the right reasons, recalling Black Swan’s virtuoso ballet sequences.
Which is not to say the film always lands its leaps. At a visceral level, I, Tonya is indecently entertaining, like a feature-length Happy Gilmore montage soaked in piss and vinegar. But on an intellectual one, it’s more than a little troubling. Jordan Belfort received similar treatment in The Wolf of Wall Street, but he was the instigator rather than the victim.
Here, most of the dramatic flashpoints come from women being hit; though the scenes aren’t framed in a gleeful fashion – on the contrary, they’re deeply uncomfortable – the tonal clash between dark laughs and domestic violence is one the film doesn’t properly address. Superbly acted, expertly made and completely unrepentant, maybe it’s too much fun to be “totally true”. Or should that be the other way round?
THE VERDICT: Like Tonya on the ice, this vicious black comedy is lean, mean and hard to take your eyes off.
Director: Craig Gillespie; Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson; Theatrical release: February 23, 2018
The English countryside – where Withnail & I once ventured “by mistake” – is undergoing an unlikely renaissance. Following 2017’s The Levelling and God’s Own Country, Clio Barnard’s drama offers another compelling argument for cinema to head for the hills.
In a plot that echoes The Levelling, prodigal daughter Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns to the family farm after the death of her father (played in flashback by a near-mute Sean Bean). An awkward reunion with estranged brother Joe (Mark Stanley) soon mutates into a seething psychological duel, as the siblings fight over tenancy rights to the land, all the while trying to ignore bleak secrets from their childhood.
Like Barnard’s earlier studies of Yorkshire life, The Arbor and The Selfish Giant, this is an unsentimental depiction of a neglected Northern community, scrabbling for subsistence. What’s different is how Barnard hitches her social-realist instincts to a story with timeless, Thomas Hardy-esque heft.
The effect is simultaneously sober and startling, and undoubtedly enhanced by Barnard working with a star for the first time. Wilson brings a wiry toughness – she’s a dab hand at sheep shearing – but the camera soaks in those expressive features until it’s obvious that Alice’s resilience masks enormous, unresolved trauma.
THE VERDICT: Rural life is familiar terrain for British cinema, but with Barnard as our guide, it remains an enthralling destination.
Director: Clio Barnard; Starring: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean; Theatrical release: February 23, 2018
Most of Native’s action takes place on board a spaceship. But banish thoughts of gadgets and flashing lights; this is the most austere spaceship you’ve ever seen, seemingly constructed of rough-hewn granite in hexagonal shapes.
Those hexagons are significant: the two passengers, Cane (Rupert Graves) and Eva (Ellie Kendrick), are members of ‘the hive’, the humanoid race on their native planet. They communicate with home via an advanced form of telepathy. Their mission: to locate a distant planet they’ve detected signals from, exterminate the inhabitants and prepare it for colonisation by the hive.
You’ll probably soon guess which planet it is the pair are headed for. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the key dramatic tension in director/co-writer Daniel Fitzsimmon’s feature debut stems from the relationship between Cane and Eva (Biblical echoes surely intended). It’s a tension that only escalates once Cane’s telepathic link with home is severed and his behaviour turns increasingly uncontrolled.
Graves vividly conveys a sense of desolate aloneness heading into desperation and violence, while Kendrick’s Eva finds her own determination undermined by his doubts and mood swings. The two play out their shifting dynamic with just the right balance of understatement and intensity, much aided by Baltic Fleet’s subtly unsettling score.
THE VERDICT: An eye-catching, ideas-driven debut that turns its limited budget to its advantage, with shrewd lead performances.
Director: Daniel Fitzsimmons; Starring: Rupert Graves, Ellie Kendrick, Leanne Best; Theatrical release: February 23, 2018
Birth of the Dragon
In 1964, nine years before making Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) fought Shaolin master Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) in a private match.
In the hands of director George Nolfi, what could have been a fascinating insight into street versus classical martial arts instead becomes a generic fight flick, with a script so heavy-handed it feels like it was bashed out with knuckle-dusters.
Director: George Nolfi; Starring: Billy Magnussen, Yu Xia, Philip Ng; Theatrical release: February 23, 2018
Finding Your Feet
Celia Imrie and Imelda Staunton are mismatched sisters in this charming British comedy-drama aimed at the Marigold Hotel market, with Imrie the hippie-ish older sis taking in her snooty sibling, whose hubby is having an affair.
Its love-in-later-life insights are well-worn, but with Staunton on song, Richard Loncraine’s film mines genuine feeling.
Director: Richard Loncraine; Starring: Timothy Spall, Joanna Lumley, Imelda Staunton; Theatrical release: February 23, 2018
The Ice King
A documentary tribute to the late British sportsman John Curry, the Olympic gold medallist who transformed figure skating in the mid-’70s, but then died penniless aged just 44 of an Aids-related illness.
Drawing on its subject’s letters and amateur footage of his balletic performances, James Erskine’s (Le Mans 3D, One Night in Turin) film movingly conveys both Curry’s brilliance and his inner torment.
Director: James Erskine; Theatrical release: February 23, 2018
Released as part of the BFI’s Ingmar Bergman season, this is a rare chance to see the director’s 1971 English-language debut. A surgical dissection of a volatile affair, between free-spirited archaeologist Elliott Gould and married woman Bibi Andersson, it’s an unsettling, sometimes ugly experience.
Pity, though, that all the good work is hampered by stilted-sounding dialogue and an off-putting score.
Director: Ingmar Bergman; Starring: Elliott Gould, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow; Theatrical release: February 23, 2018