Sunday 25 February 2018

Dashing blades: "The Ice King"

The Winter Olympics conclude for another four years, and our cinemas, like our ice rinks, suddenly find themselves besieged by an influx of skater boys and girls. Sent forth this weekend as a non-fiction counterweight to I, Tonya, the sports documentarist James Erskine's new film The Ice King hews more sincerely to its established set of facts: it pulls from Bill Jones's admired biography Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry the story of how an engineer's son from a small village outside Birmingham came to dazzle the world with his footwork - albeit at some considerable personal cost. Overbearing parents will once again play a part. In an early Eighties interview Erskine places upfront, Curry can be heard to confess "I wanted to be a dancer. I was allowed to ice skate, because it was a sport." A not uncommon theme - gay self-denial - is being set up here, and The Ice King wastes no time in underlining that Curry was gay at a time when it was still technically illegal in the UK. We're left in no doubt that the film's subject forged his path the hard way - we hear in passing of a Swiss coach who insisted "you must skate like a man" - but Erskine also suggests that this Billy Elliot-like yen to dance above all else may have provided some competitive advantage. Curry was always striving for grace rather than the hard power of some other athletes, with beauty, rather than victory, the ultimate goal - a mindset borne out in period footage that positions this tall, lithe figure closer to Nureyev or Baryshnikov than the pocket rockets we've witnessed competing in Pyeongchang this past week. (His trajectory towards a pro career and gold at the 1976 Olympics was greatly accelerated by the American philanthropist Ed Mosler, with money that might just as easily have gone to the Met or the New York Philharmonic.)

Erskine's typically sharp-eyed and far-reaching archive work gets us inside Curry Sr.'s workshop and his son's closed training sessions; it runs the gamut from Pebble Mill sitdowns with Paul Coia to Soviet promotional films hymning the strength of the skater's rivals. Yet while the elements of an East-West battle might hook in sports fans, The Ice King feels appreciably more personal than Erskine's earlier films on footballers and cricketers. The deployment of those letters Curry wrote to sweethearts and close friends has much to do with that, yet Erskine also lets several ice dance routines play out at length, the better to demonstrate how these were, in their own way, realisations of a vision, crystallisations of exactly that beauty Curry the artist was pursuing. Such sequences speak to a refinement of this director's own technique. Erskine's previous films (2010's Italia '90 retrospective One Night in Turin, say, or 2013's The Battle of the Sexes) had a diverting sense of hotly contested events, changing mores and watershed moments, but tended to rattle past any deeper emotional or psychological analysis for fear of driving the lads watching on ITV4 away to find more lager. The Ice King - Erskine's first production to bear the branding of the BBC's Storyville strand, and not coincidentally the first not to seem like a skilfully compiled highlights package - works towards the full revelation of an often troubled personality, whether it be caught out on the ice, behind closed cabin doors on Fire Island, or through the testimony of those who both admired and suffered for Curry's perfectionism. It loses a few technical marks here and there - I still get grumpy at Erskine's decision to stretch material shot in the 4:3 ratio of 1970s televisions across the width of the widescreen frame - yet the whole emerges as a small triumph of contextualisation and commemoration: its final act, which takes in Curry's final choreographed work (set to "The Blue Danube Waltz") and an obvious handwriting deterioration as the skater's body succumbed to the ravages of AIDS, is deeply moving.

The Ice King is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream here.    

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