I, Tonya and The Ice King

Last year at the movies, the big sport was tennis, with the Battle of the Sexes spinning colourful fun from Billie Jean King’s 1973 match against chauvinist Bobby Riggs, and a thoughtful Swedish take on the rivalry of Borg vs McEnroe. Neither film did particularly well at the box office, so this year, the movie bosses have got together and thought: hmm, it’s the Winter Olympics, isn’t it? So let’s try ice skating.

You wait years for decent ice films and two come sliding in at once. The bigger film, with the Oscar nominations and all, is I, Tonya (pronounced Tanya btw), which is sort of about the infamous incident when tough cookie skater Tonya Harding was involved in a plot to crowbar the knee of her squeaky clean American rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics.

Gliding along in that film’s slipstream is a British documentary, The Ice King, about the life of our own 1976 Olympic champion John Curry and his battles with convention, artistry and AIDS. Expect this to be made into a feature film one day soon – it’s a great part for an actor, and it’s from the team behind the original Battle of Sexes documentary who didn’t get the rights to make it into a feature. Oops – but at least there’s no chance of that slip up happening again.

Indeed, the awards nominations for both Margot Robbie and Alison Janney in I, Tonya prove there’s cinematic mileage in playing a skater. Robbie, who shot to fame as the vixen in The Wolf of Wall Street, is terrific as Tonya, taking her from a teenager in braces to bruised 40 -year-old looking back on what happened, with no real regrets, rather interestingly.

The film has the look and structure of a mockumentary, like one of those Christopher Guest comedies such as Best in Show. And it is funny in parts, I guess. Or at least you expect it to be, to take the piss out of these ghastly, trailer trash characters. However, mostly it’s quite sad and brutal, as Tonya suffers abuse at the hands of her domineering, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, mother Lavonya (a chilling Janney) and then with her utter dolt of a husband with his greasy mullet hair and wormy moustache.

We watch Harding literally put on her brave face and skate, landing the impossible triple axel (still only seven female skaters have achieved this) and launching herself into the American team when the snooty judges would really rather have not had a pugnacious little fighter from the wrong side of the skating tracks who danced to rock and pop instead of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

I, Tonya is tough at times, watching unlikeable people being not very nice to each other, yet Robbie’s excellence is in bringing you on to her side, even though she was once the most hated woman in America. It strikes me that this is also a rare story about class in American society and it unravels in a riot of acrylic costumes, cheap perms and drugstore make-up. It’s fascinating, a bit fabulous and full of fight, and Robbie lands every beat of it.

Sports doc specialist James Erskine excels himself with The Ice King, lacing together the story of John Curry like a hand-crafted skating boot. Using Curry’s letters (beautifully, movingly voiced-over by Freddie Fox), interviews and archive, the story starts in suburban Birmingham when the young John was forbidden to do ballet by his strict Dad, but is allowed to go skating because it was considered a sport.

Curry resolved to change that, making it an art and setting his sights on the Olympic gold in order to pursue a career as a dancer more than an athlete. He really was a beautiful skater, like Nureyev on the ice, but he was also outed by the press, which made going on Blue Peter and being the usual national hero and example to Britain’s kids a bit tricky. John navigated the storm pretty well, but never came across as loveable, although he had a loyal (and secret) lover in Heinz Wirz, who provides emotional commentary.

He went off to America instead, enjoying the hedonism of the gay scene and Fire Island until AIDS devastated that moustachioed, denim-shorted community. John, meanwhile, was set upon making dance spectaculars in the Met and at the Royal Albert Hall, creating gorgeous routines set to Debussy and Ravel and Jean Michel Jarre. 

Sometimes these are shown in scratchy amateur camcorder footage, fragile remains of the fleeting beauty of live artistic performance. Whatever is going on behind the scenes and in his head, Curry always looks imperious, proud, haughty and beautiful throughout. While I, Tonya deals with class battles, Curry’s fight is with his inner demons, wider attitudes to homosexuality and the spectre of AIDS.

None of this sparkly twirling and spectacular salchow-ing makes me any more likely to lace up and totter across my local rink, but you should get your skates on to the nearest cinema for a lovely double bill of painfully wide smiles and icy inner struggles.

The Ice King is in cinemas now.

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