Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a frank, twisted and darkly entertaining biopic based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory” interviews with ex-figure skater Tonya Harding and her husband Jeff Gilooley. Inspired by real events, Harding and Gilooley caused a storm in 1994 when they were accused of orchestrating an attack on Harding’s Olympic team-mate and American sweetheart, Nancy Kerrigan. Each character’s perceptions of the events are tangled up in a web of narrative cinema, fake-documentary style interviews and real footage.
In the opening scenes of the film, Harding is described as “totally American”, and this sums up the film masterfully. It’s all about what it means to be American, and the kind of American that the media doesn’t necessarily want to show you. Harding grows up chopping wood, shooting rabbits and off-roading pick-up trucks, all of which makes her the polar opposite of everything the figure skating world wants her to be. In a world of prim, proper, lithe swans, she’s a defiant duckling. This is underlined by her skating to the soundtrack of thumping American guitar rock from the likes of Heart, Supertramp and ZZ Top.
There’s no need for prior knowledge or interest in figure skating, because this film is the opposite of everything you would expect from ice princesses. I, Tonya is violent, dark and there is no delicate tiptoeing around anything. Tonya is gutsy and strong, but vulnerable too; Margot Robbie excellently captures all of her contradictory individualities. She embodies the gawky, shy teenager falling in love, the arrogant athlete whose sport is the only thing that matters, the abused daughter, and the scared woman caught up in a media circus. The skating competition scenes are brilliantly shot, with a handheld camera that closely follows Robbie (and her stunt doubles) as she blusters across the ice and launches herself into powerful jumps. Robbie’s physical acting is exceptional as she storms onto the rink rebelliously, like a boxer entering the ring.
Harding’s mother Lavona is wickedly portrayed by Alison Janney. From the moment she stands on an ice rink, smoking to the soundtrack of Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’, the tone is set for her entire performance. She throws knives at her daughter, then wryly comments “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”. Sebastian Stan is also praiseworthy in his role as Jeff, Harding’s impotent and brutish husband, who hatches a plan with his equally inept buddies to “take out” Kerrigan.
The criticism that one could throw at the film is its obvious bias. Even though it claims to be presenting several versions of one event, it fails to show Nancy Kerrigan’s at all. The fact that it is called I, Tonya is very revealing, because it truly Tonya who has the tale to tell. It’s her origin story and her eventual downfall. The film has moments of irony when it winks to the audience, characters cutting in and telling the audience “this never happened”. Yet for the most part, Tonya is the heroine, she is Rocky or the Karate Kid gearing up for the big fight and it’s very difficult not to root for her.
As someone who has been demonised by the press, and made the butt of a joke ever since Kerrigan’s attack, this movie does a lot to vindicate Harding. Who, after all, are the true villains of the story but the public, who fed off the media carnival surrounding Tonya in the 1990s and ascertained her guilt from damning news reports and clipped press conferences. The film does a good job of casting the camera back on the audience, forcing us to admit that we are all here because of a morbid fascination with the “incident”. Footage of O.J. Simpson being frogmarched into a cop car at the end of movie is a wry nod to the fickleness of media sensation and what it means to be guilty in the court of public opinion.
Whether this portrayal of the events is accurate or not, it doesn’t really matter. The point of the film is to give several different views which all hold some version of the truth. As an underdog narrative, I, Tonya is powerful and well worth seeing.
– Sarah Roberts
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