Starring: Margot Robbie, Alison Janney, Sebastian Stan
Director: Craig Gillespie
Running Time: 119 mins
Synopsis: A contradictory, if largely true story about American figure skater Tonya Harding. We watch as Harding (Robbie) defies her tough economic background and even tougher mother (Janney) to become a world champion. However an incident in 1994 involving fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya’s abusive husband Jeff (Stan) will have tragic and devastating consequences for the controversial skater.
I, Tonya opens with the words “Taken from irony free and wildly conflicting interviews with those involved”, which immediately clues you into the fact that this will be no ordinary biopic. While most true life tales tend to adapt, alter or outright make up aspects in order to make their stories flow with a dramatic momentum that real life doesn’t always adhere to, this retelling of infamous figure skater Tonya Harding’s career brashly admits when it is making things up. Usually this is done in energetic fourth wall breaking asides to camera, and though it could’ve been an eccentric directorial tic, director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) embeds it within an overarching theme of how the truth is always subjective.
Right from the off there is a manic sense of urgency to I, Tonya, the film bouncing from flashback, to flash forward by way of freeze frames and monologues to camera. In some respects Gillespie overplays his hand a little bit, with this incessant need to throw filmmaking tricks around causing a whiplash effect that almost risks a sense of tiredness. An overlong running time doesn’t help with this. However the committed performances and controlled tone allow it to shine as a truly unconventional biopic. Opening with a series of ‘almost’ present day interviews to camera, a multitude of characters regaling us with their version of events, whilst the film zaps us to the events in question. This is our first taste of I, Tonya’s delicate play with the truth. More often than not a character will detail their idea of how things played out whereas what we actually witness is very different. Gillespie deftly playing these moments as either darkly twisted comedy or with tragic overtones.
The tale of Tonya Harding is one filled with insanity, stupidity and tragedy. Raised to be a champion from a very early age by a vicious domineering mother. LaVonna Harding is a true monster and Alison Janney chomps down on the role with gleeful abandon. Crass, volatile and lacking in any real compassion, she fills the frame with her performance. Played for laughs one minute then horrific moments of familial abuse the next, LaVonna believes her treatment of Tonya was instrumental in turning her into the star she becomes. It is another instance of the truth being warped by an individuals own viewpoint, we see the abuse for what it really is, she on the other hand just thinks of it as tough necessary love.
Despite all this trauma Tonya perseveres, using her natural ability and true passion for figure skating as a way out of the constant abuses she must suffer. Margot Robbie, while not an exact lookalike of the real Harding, captures her strength and complexity with gusto. Her rough around the edges honesty is a bracing contrast to the composed uppity snobs she encounters on the skating circuit. Elements of this class struggle permeate the film, Tonya constantly having to battle against the pre-conceived notions her background has given her. But it is also an element of just why she gained such popularity, her lack of airs and graces catnip to those not usually au fait with ice skating. Although it was not to last, an unfortunate misunderstanding leading to her Olympic challenger Nancy Kerrigan getting horrifically beaten.
Before we get to this though there is one more important player in this strange saga. Tonya’s on again off again husband Jeff, played by Captain America’s Sebastian Stan. Often a largely bland presence on film, here he is anything but. His is the character that most showcases opposing facets to his personality. Shy and unassuming in their early courtship, before becoming monstrously abusive, even though to camera he vehemently denies this. Once again I, Tonya challenges just what the truth really is, wisely never actually agreeing with one side or the other. Stan plays Jeff with a mixture of macho posturing and desperate neediness. The moment where he threatens her with a gun after she leaves him is intense, horrifying and ultimately hopelessly sad. It is Jeff’s best friend, though, who sets in motion the unexpected attack on Kerrigan. Paul Walter Hauser plays Shawn Eckhart, the man most deluded in this sorry bunch of fools. Convinced he is some sort of secret agent bodyguard, Hauser is comedic relief throughout most of the film before his delusion provides tragic far reaching consequences.
The game-changing moment is built to with all the tension you’d expect, but it is the aftermath that provides I, Tonya with such sadness. Harding is treated as some sort of malevolent monster by the media, helped no doubt by her already chastised image as the street rat of figure skating, and she suffers the most from a crime that she played very little part in. The truth altered and skewered in order to portray what they think their audience needs. It is a subtle insightful attack on the medias ability to steer critical thinking. Throughout Gillespie laces out pertinent things to say, but never calls attention to them. This is Tonya’s story, a chance to return face to a woman much scorned, Gillespie realising that the best way to do that is to show her as she was, warts and all.
Aiding that is a real sense of directorial confidence, there aren’t many who can make the usually off-putting fourth wall breaking feel exciting and funny. There is a down and dirty tinge to everything, further exacerbating the lower class nature of Harding’s family. Gillespie does also capture the thrill of those record breaking performances Tonya brought to the ice, however the face swapping used to implant Robbie’s face on the stunt skater is painfully visible. It is not enough to hamper the impact of those sequences but it certainly removes you emotionally from her achievements. Still with death defying moves such as Harding’s I’m not shocked that Robbie had no chance in hell in replicating them. I, Tonya is about more than mere skating though. It is about the truth and how it can be manipulated from all angles. By the media, our family, our society and ourselves. How the full honest truth lies somewhere in the middle between all these differing perspectives. One truth is apparent however, that Tonya Harding is one of a kind.
Verdict: Despite an over-reliance on directorial tricks, I, Tonya is a vibrantly energetic look at a much misjudged woman. Robbie and Janney steal the show with two complex volatile performances.