John Curry might not be a name immediately recognisable to younger sporting fans, but after a successful competitive career on the ice – topped off with a gold medal during the 1976 Winter Olympics – he blazed a trail in the world of ice-dancing. His innovations are still unparalleled and the cross-pollination of modern dance and ballet (a first love of his which is he was forbidden from participating in by his conservative father) are now the norm in figure skating.
A gay man relatively open about his sexuality in an era before that was accepted, Curry had travelled the globe and packed in a lifetime’s worth of exploits when he met his untimely, AIDS-related end, aged 44. It goes without saying there’s much ground to cover here and director James Erskine pulls it off with aplomb. Echoing that of the subject matter, The Ice King is a focused, elegantly made documentary, and at a relatively brisk 88 minutes, none of Curry’s achievements (or defeats) ever feel like they’re being skated over. Erskine constructs his film almost entirely out of archival footage, with support from a series of voice-overs from instrumental figures in Curry’s life.
All this helps to really tap into the skater’s persona, but it’s the inclusion of correspondence between Curry and those whom he was closest to (brought to vivid and sensitive life via narration from actor Freddie Fox) which really forge what is an absorbing, occasional first-person narrative. The results of all this means focus is never shifted away from the subject matter, whose personal struggles paint a very different picture to that of his unblemished professional output. Curry’s talent and artistry transcended the medium. This is gloriously highlighted in the rich array of footage featuring him in action, which Erskine is canny enough to let to play out as long as possible.
The skater’s crowning achievement at London’s Albert Hall is particularly jaw-dropping to witness, even when viewed via fuzzy analogue TV footage. Ultimately, the film manages to paint a reverential and unsentimental portrait of Curry (even including a brief glimpse of perhaps his greatest accolade a guess spot on Blue Peter) but his foibles are also up there to see. Easily one of the best documentary offerings so far this year, The Ice King is a fine testament to an artist who challenged preconceptions and prejudices, both on and off the ice.
The Ice King is in selected cinemas from Friday 23 February. theicekingmovie.com
Adam Lowes | @adlow76