Cold Comforts

Last year at the movies, the sport was tennis, with the Battle of the Sexes spinning colourful fun from Billie Jean King’s 1973 match with chauvinist Bobby Riggs, and a Swedish take on Borg vs McEnroe. Neither film did that well at the box office, so this year, the movie moguls have thought: let’s try ice-skating.

You wait years for decent ice films and two slide in at once. The bigger, with Oscar nominations and all, is I, Tonya, ostensibly about the time when tough cookie skater Tonya Harding was involved in a plot to crowbar the knee of squeaky-clean American rival, Nancy Kerrigan, before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Gliding along in its slipstream is British doc The Ice King, about 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.

Indeed, the awards nominations for both Margot Robbie and Alison Janney in I, Tonya prove there’s 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 teenager in braces to bruised 40-year-old looking back on what happened. The film has the look and structure of a mockumentary, like a Christopher Guest comedy such as Best in Show. And it is funny in parts. Mostly it’s quite sad and brutal, as Tonya suffers abuse from her domineering, hard-drinking, chain-smoking mother LaVona (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 and launching into the US team when 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, not the Sugar Plum Fairy.

I, Tonya is tough at times – 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’s a rare story about class in US society and it unravels in a riot of acrylic costumes, cheap perms and drugstore make-up. It’s fascinating, fabulous and full of fight.
Sports doc specialist James Erskine excels with The Ice King, lacing together the story of John Curry like a finely crafted skating boot. Using his letters (beautifully, movingly voiced-over by Freddie Fox), interviews and archive, the story starts in suburban Birmingham with young John forbidden to do ballet by his strict dad, but allowed to go skating as it was a ‘sport’.

Curry resolved to change that, making it art and setting his sights on Olympic gold to pursue a career as a dancer not athlete. He was a beautiful skater, like Nureyev on the ice, but was outed by the press, which made going on Blue Peter as an example to Britain’s kids tricky. John navigated the storm 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 and the hedonism of the gay scene, until Aids devastated it. John took on spectaculars in the Met and at the Royal Albert Hall, with gorgeous routines set to Debussy, Ravel and Jean-Michel Jarre. Some are shown in scratchy amateur footage, fragile remains of the fleeting beauty of his artistic performance. But Curry looks imperious, proud, haughty and beautiful throughout. While I, Tonya deals with class battles, Curry’s fight is with inner demons, wider attitudes to homosexuality and the spectre of Aids. I’d happily get my skates on to the cinema for a lovely double bill of ice, smiles and struggles.