I, Tonya – United States
Margot Robbie should take home gold, of some sort, for her portrayal of American figure skater Tonya Harding. To prepare for the role, the Australian actress trained on the ice full-time for four months, five times a week. “But I still can’t do a triple axel,” she laughs during a Q&A after her film’s world premiere, hosted by Hugo Boss at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Director Curtis Gillespie’s biopic takes the form of a fake documentary, with interviews as well as a chronological re-telling of events leading up to the infamous Nancy Kerrigan attack in 1994 and Harding’s subsequent fall from grace. Though the bones of Steven Rogers’ screenplay are factually accurate, I, Tonya generously takes ample creative license and infuses a well-timed wit into a darkly comic script, breaking the fourth wall on occasion to push an already over-the-top story to the brink of absurdity at times—and hitting the right mark. Unfolding against a soundtrack of 1990s hits—think Heart’s Barracuda and Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain—viewers follow Harding from a 15-year-old self-described “redneck” with an athlete’s gift and fierce drive, to a skating superstar, and finally, a fallen star. Abused by her mother during adolescence, and later by her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), it’s impossible to not side with the plucky blonde rebel from the wrong side of the rink. That sympathetic thread is periodically waylaid by Harding’s raw, dislikable edge, but all is redeemed in her moments of glory. When Harding takes to the ice in front of a packed stadium and sticks the landing of a triple axel—making her the first woman in the world to complete a triple axel during a competition—her sheer glee is contagious. Allison Janney captivates as Harding’s ruthless mother, LaVona Golden, who ironically garners some of the largest laughs with her deadpan deliveries, often with a pet cockatoo nibbling her ear. But I, Tonya’s superstar is Robbie, who proves her acting chops scene after scene. Leaving the screening, mutterings of “Oscar contender” crossed viewers’ lips.
Never Steady, Never Still – Canada
Bring tissues to Kathleen Hepburn’s drama, which takes on the debilitating world of living with a long-term illness—in this case, Parkinson’s disease—and its impact on a family. Shirley Henderson plays Judy, a beautiful woman living with Parkinson’s who spends her days in a lakeside home alongside husband, Eddie (Nicholas Campbell of Da Vinci’s Inquest fame) and son (2017 TIFF Rising Star Théodore Pellerin). When tragedy strikes and she is left without her husband, Judy remains defiantly independent in the face of disease; fending for herself becomes the humbling mission of every minute of every long day. Acts of daily life, such as opening a jar of peanut butter or shuffling a deck of cards, become visual struggles with piercing cinematic and emotional effect. When her son must carry her out of a bathtub one day, Judy cries: “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I should be looking after you.”
There is no assuaging the pain of the everyday in Never Steady, Never Still but there are moments of reprieve. Filmed on location in Fort St. John, B.C., cinematographer Norm Li chose the grainy texture of film to give added depth to dewy sunsets and melancholy fallen snow, while Hepburn filters moments of heartbreak through stark visual beauty, whether it is focused on a corner of a boat rushing through water and a trail of petals to denote scattered ashes, or on Judy, kneeled down on that same lake in winter, now a palette of ice, speaking to her husband’s spirit.
Vancouver-born Hepburn’s main influence was personal; her mother has lived with Parkinson’s for 24 years. “It is a disease that people see before they see you,” Hepburn explains. This important film shows the intricate depths beyond.
The Ritual – United Kingdom
A remote forest in Northern Sweden sets the scene for director David Bruckner’s first feature, The Ritual, based on the eponymous novel by Adam Nevill. Four friends, grieving the loss of another, embark upon a three-day hiking trip to honour his memory. As day turns to night however, and a shortcut goes wrong, the men—all played with relatable humanity—are left to the mercy of the woods and what lies within. “I’m sick of this off-road bollocks,” says one character, Dominic, after spotting a trail in the distance. “A path means civilization—let’s follow it.” Or does it? Horror movie plot spoilers are best left in the dark, so simply prepare for a nail-biter with a Blair Witch Project edge, sharp cinematography, and evil in the woods.
Photos courtesy of TIFF.
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