I, Tonya review
Some context, if it is needed. In 1994 US figure skater, and Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan was attacked after a training session. Her assailant hit her in the knee with a police baton. The attack was traced back to associates of Tonya Harding, Kerrigan’s US teammate and rival for Olympic gold. Did she really do it? Did she plan the whole thing herself? Did she know anything about the attack? Or was the whole thing done behind her back by people in her team who thought they were doing her a favour? I, Tonya, the fabulous new film from director Craig Gillespie looks to answer these questions, and a whole lot more.
Told in the style of a docu-drama, allowing for multiple perspectives, I, Tonya delves under the skin of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her vile husband Jeff Gilhooly (Sebastian Stan), and her despicable harridan of a mother LaVona (Alison Janney). Forced into skating from an early age by LaVona, Tonya is pushed, brutalised, and abused into becoming one of the best skaters in the country. Despite her talent she is frequently underscored by judges, and learns that her white-trash upbringing is holding her back in the prim and proper world of figure skating.
In her teens she meets Jeff, and the two marry soon after. He too abuses Tonya, frequently beating and assaulting her. After the brutal upbringing she endured at the hands of her mother, it is no surprise that she puts up with Jeff. She has known nothing different her entire life.
The film cuts between these scenes and the characters as they are now, talking direct to camera about what happened, and how they all remember it. It’s a remarkably effective narrative tool, especially as this all leads up to “the incident”, and how they all remember what happened back in 1994 is absolutely critical to what became of these people in the aftermath.
The film is driven by the power of the central performances. Sebastian Stan, taking a break from metal-armed mayhem in his regular gig as Marvel’s Winter Soldier, is terrific in what is a very difficult role. Playing someone who was essentially the most hated man in America, and still managing to make him seem like a real person (and not a 2-D caricature of “the abusive husband”) takes a certain amount of skill. And Alison Janney is surely a dead cert come Oscar night. Her portrayal of the hate-filled “sports mom” is exactly the kind of explosive, scene-stealing performance that the Academy love in the best supporting categories. It would be well deserved.
But seriously, this film truly belongs to one woman. Margot Robbie is sensational beyond words in this film. It is an irresistible and devastating portrayal of Harding, charting her life from the young girl who overcame insurmountable odds to become one of the best figures skaters on the planet, to the broken middle-aged woman, recounting this tale to us through a fog of bitterness, regret, and Lucky Strike smoke. She gives everything to this role, and her nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars is the least she deserves. There is one fleeting moment in the film, where with just a single look, she bares the soul of Tonya Harding. It is an astonishing, goose-bump inducing moment.
At this point it looks highly unlikely that anyone is going to take the trophy away from Frances McDormand, but if Margot Robbie were to do it, you’d hear no complaints from me.
Yes, the film gives Harding an easier ride than some of the other characters, but despite framing it like a documentary, it fundamentally isn’t one. Our sympathies need to lie with someone in the cast, or the film just isn’t going to work. Thankfully it does work. Steven Rogers inventive script and Craig Gillespie’s canny direction make sure of it. Not only that, I would go as far as saying that I, Tonya belongs in the upper echelons of the sports biopic. Asking important questions about class and sexism in sport and the media, the film still manages to be funny, entertaining, and devastatingly sad. An excellent film, boasting one of the best performances you’ll see all year.