Character development is essential to the success of a narrative film, particularly when the characters are depictions of real people. Audiences should enter the mind and witness the growth of the character using all the cinematic devices a movie crew can muster. Yet I wonder: Has character development become a secondary aspect of filmmaking in a world that emphasizes action flicks? I, TONYA and ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD are two basically well-made films that are letdowns in the category of character development.
I, TONYA offers an oddball account of disgraced champion ice skater Tonya Harding, her abusive mother, and her obnoxious husband and his dweeb friend. For the first long hour and a half of the movie, the audience witnesses the troubled early years of victimized Tonya. Then the focus moves on to the brutal attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, just months before the two women were to compete in the Winter Olympics.
The story is presented through a series of scenes showing the main characters chasing and striking and verbally insulting each other, interrupted by the same characters addressing comments directly to us, the viewers. The breaking of the fourth wall is effective and entertaining, but the scenes of yelling and violence are repetitive and tiresome. Why? Because there is no character development! Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, is interesting when she performs the triple axel on ice, but otherwise is a flat character, victimized, nasty, and not very bright for her whole young adult life.
I expected to find quality character development in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, directed by the much- admired Ridley Scott. The film relates details of the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III at age 16 in Italy in 1973. Charlie Plummer plays young Paul, and we really don’t get any sense of him other than he is meek and obedient as a captive. He is the object of the story, so he is excused from any character development.
But what about his mother, played by Michelle Williams? Whether Ridley Scott preferred this character to be played down, whether he is more comfortable in the more abstract realm of futuristic sci fi films, or whether Williams made the choice herself, the mother is as flat a character as can be imagined. When her son is taken, she appears a wee bit ticked off. When his ear is hacked off, she is hardly a bit more disturbed by events. I have shown more emotional anguish when my new shoe rubs against the heel of my foot than Williams shows at the ordeal of her son’s near-death experience. Only Christopher Plummer stands out, bringing the full force of his acting ability to the screen as miserly, mentally unbalanced billionaire J. Paul Getty.
For those film-goers who revel in a good cinematic character study, I recommend DARKEST HOUR. Gary Oldman is a recent Golden Globe winner for playing Winston Churchill during the early bleak days of World War II. He may well win an Oscar soon. DARKEST HOUR focuses on the character development of Churchill from his appointment as prime minister to his public decision to fight the war till the last person stands, rather than cave to Hitler. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten gradually build Churchill’s tormented character through intimate scenes. The camera is allowed to linger, and the result is a rich discovery of character insights and reveals that would be lost in the hands of less talented people.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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