Film and drama

Screen Themes – Birds of Prey vs I, Tonya         

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It’s a celebration of Australian treasure Margot Robbie as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out two of her most iconic performances.

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

Directed by Cathy Yan

Funny story; after a below-expectations opening weekend for the snappily titled, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), Warner Bros. studio freaked the hell out and changed the name of the movie to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. The theory was that moviegoers were too dumb to realise the name of the movie and that a combination of "the bleeding-obvious" and search engine optimisation might fix the problem.

Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was probably the best thing about Suicide Squad; Jared Leto’s Joker was undoubtedly the worst. Fortunately, Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson made the wise decision to write out the Joker. In an offbeat animated sequence, they lead a very drunk Harley to blow up the Ace Chemical Factory, the site of her transformation from psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel to psychotic Harley Quinn — this signals her moving on from her former partner.  It’s this breakup that provides the narrative momentum for the rest of the movie, as all the people that Harley wronged over the years come back for revenge.

Also starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli/Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah Lance/Black Canary and Rosie Perez as drunken comic relief Detective Renee Montoya, but Birds of Prey is 100 per cent Margot Robbie’s movie. It’s not that the other performances are bad (apart from Perez), but Robbie has made Harley her own — in the same way that Hugh Jackman embodies Wolverine. It’s just hard to imagine any other actor playing this role. An honourable mention must also go to Ewan McGregor as bad guy Roman Sionis. Essentially honing the role as an unhinged Elton John, he switches between effortless charm and screaming histrionics.

Despite reviewing well, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey has been blown out of the box office water by Sonic the Hedgehog, opening with the lowest-ever box office of a DC extended universe movie. With respect to the marketing gurus at Warner Bros. (hah!), the problem with this movie may not be the name. More so it may be the fact that someone decided it was a good idea to make a Harley Quinn movie that excluded girls under the age of 15 (it's rated MA15+), this group tends to be the character’s biggest fans. While the occasional graphic violence and frequent profanity might make the movie feel slightly more adult, it’s an odd choice to say the least.

I, Tonya 

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Based loosely on the real life attack on ice skater Nancy Kerrigan, orchestrated by rival Tonya Harding, I, Tonya starts out with a disclaimer that most of what you’re about to see isn’t what happened. Instead, it’s a recounting of what Harding and former husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) claimed happened in interviews with the FBI and various media outlets. This flexible approach to historicity allows director Craig Gillespie to present multiple versions of the same event, sort of like Rashomon with ice skating and a lot more swearing.

I, Tonya starts off as a standard biopic, telling the story of young Tonya, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who happened to be a great ice skater. Driven mercilessly by her bitter mother (Allison Janney), Tonya uses resentment and rage to fuel her performances, a strategy that produces top-notch performances but puts the elitist judges offside. When Tonya meets big talking small fry Jeff Gillooly, the pair fall in love immediately and their relationship gradually degrades to domestic violence as Tonya chases her Olympic dream.

As ever, Margot Robbie is spectacular as Tonya, embracing her inner redneck and fiercely unafraid to look like a bogan, but the supporting cast is also excellent. Allison Janney is a revelation as LaVona Harding, the single mother that sacrificed everything to allow her daughter to ice skate – and will never let her forget it. Sebastian Stan is all oily charm as the ambitious Gillooly. While, Paul Walter Hauser almost steals the movie with his egoless performance as gormless moron Shawn, a man who claims to have connections to international spy agencies but has never encountered a situation he couldn’t screw up.

At times I, Tonya is an uncomfortable viewing experience, particularly the scenes which portray the domestic violence inflicted on Tonya by Jeff. If accurate (Gillooly vehemently denies it) then Harding faced a truly horrific home life, albeit one that she repeatedly returned to as it was the only life she really knew.

The Verdict

No matter what role she is portraying, Margot Robbie stands out from the crowd. Without going full Daniel Day I’m-going-to-become-a-cobbler-to-prepare-for-Gangs-of-New-York Lewis, Robbie truly inhabits the characters she portrays, equally believable as a struggling athlete or as an unhinged supervillain. 

Unless you’re a superhero movie fan, Birds of Prey may leave you a little perplexed, as it’s packed with sly references and Easter eggs aimed at the tights and fights crowd. On the other hand, with action sequences directed by the team that worked on John Wick, Birds of Prey also works as a kick-ass female empowerment movie.

If you’re looking for historical accuracy, then I, Tonya probably isn’t going to float your boat. Unafraid to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of an entertaining narrative, I, Tonya is cartoonish in the way that Coen Brothers movies often are. None of the characters is particularly likeable, it’s hard to believe that a human as dumb as Shawn could exist, and you'll want to give Tonya a good talking to over some of the choices she makes, but it’s a compelling movie all the same.

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey – 7/10

I, Tonya – 8/10

John Turnbull is a writer, balloon pilot and tattoo aficionado. 

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