Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale
Given the extent to which she gripped the world’s attention back in 1994, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s taken Tonya Harding’s story nearly 25 years to make it to the big screen. In Craig Gillespie’s efforts to bring together the truly wild strands of the ice-skater-turned-notoriety-symbol’s tale, the director has created an entertaining film, but I, Tonya fails to really get to grips with its subject.
Margot Robbie plays Tonya Harding, a young skater prodigy drawn not, like most of her peers, from the rarefied middle classes, but from an impoverished blue-collar family. Skating is her passion, but her endless hours on the ice are in part dictated by her cold, emotionally and physically abusive mother LaVona (Alison Janney), who sees in her daughter an opportunity to achieve the success and wealth that has personally eluded her. For LaVona her daughter can do no right – her failures on the rinks are met with beatings and cruel invective (‘you skate like a graceless bull dyke’), while her successes are received with bitter jealousy. Initially, new boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastien Stan) seems to offer an escape, but Harding quickly finds herself suffering at his hands even as her skating career begins to take off.
I mean, come on! What kind of friggin’ person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?
Gillespie structures his films around a series of interviews – described as ‘irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true’ – with the main players, as each attempt to put their own spin on proceedings. Characters turn to the camera at times to assure us that ‘this is not what happened’ – I was reminded of the Tony Wilson biopic 24-Hour Party People, which took a similar approach. The fourth-wall breaking meta-commentary worked in that film, but here it proves distracting and glib, Gillespie’s knowing attempts to weave together truth and legend not really coming together.
This is the case not least because the irreverent tone adopted during much of the film clashes with the brutal realism of the scenes of domestic abuse. The tonal shifts are uncomfortable and though Gillespie’s treatment of domestic violence itself seems sincere – the film is particularly good in examining why domestic abuse victims may find themselves returning to a cycle of violence – the brutality rubs up jarringly against the oft-cartoonish antics elsewhere.
America. They want someone to love, they want someone to hate.
As played by Robbie, Harding herself is abrasive and occasionally unlikeable but also a relentlessly entertaining figure, a foul-mouthed missile aimed directly at the skating establishment. I, Tonya presents Harding as the victim of elitism and class-snobbery, regularly underscored by judges who ignored her skating ability because she didn’t fit their prim-and-proper idea of what a skater should look like. The skating scenes themselves are slickly and dramatically staged, and packed with verve and energy even if the digitally edited seams are occasionally a little visible. The scene in which Harding becomes the first American woman to land a triple-axle is genuinely thrilling.
Of course, everything is leading up to the event that made Harding infamous – the attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan that became headline news around the world. Unfortunately, it’s this section that is also I, Tonya‘s weakest. The film sympathetically backs the view that Harding knew nothing about the attack, and so, at the crucial moment, sidelines her in favour of a crudely Coenesque caper as Gillooly and his idiotic friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) plan how best to remove Kerrigan from contention. Their hopelessly brain-dead scheme plays out in undeniably entertaining fashion, but in shoving its primary character to the background just as proceedings reach their climax I, Tonya rather lets her off the hook. It also, oddly, barely features Kerrigan at all – she is treated as a plot device, rather than a crucial player herself, and opportunities to explore her and Harding’s relationship are missed completely.
You skated like a graceless bull dyke. I was embarrassed for you.
As Harding, Robbie gives a solid performance, although the decision to have her play Harding in her teenage years is a mistake – she makes an unconvincing 15-year old. Elsewhere Stan plays Gillooly with a chillingly soft-spoken banality, while Hauser provides the film with some chuckle-inducing slapstick – his Eckhardt might be one of recent cinema’s great morons. It’s Janney though who really steals the show as the monstrous LaVona. It’s a towering, scabrous performance and Janney makes hay with some of the film’s most acidically funny lines.
I, Tonya is pacey, frequently funny and consistently enjoyable, although its final scenes do drag. The sheer exuberance of its stranger-than-fiction tale mostly carries it through its rough patches, but it never really gets under the skin of its characters, and as a result of its superficiality its attempts to critique media sensationalism feels unearned. Just like Harding at the 1994 Olympics, it goes for gold but doesn’t quite stick the landing.