I, Tonya Review
Margot Robbie gives an Olympian performance in this mockumentary that skates the line between irreverence, satire and supportive sympathy.
The hammer attack on US ice skater Nancy Kerrigan at the Cobo Arena in 1994 is famous. Infamous. It’s a tale of rivalry gone bad, the ultimate un-sporting behaviour.The attack was intended to hobble Kerrigan and rule her out of the Winter Olympics. In fact, she recovered, competed in Lillehammer and won a silver medal. But that’s not really a concern in I, Tonya. As the title suggests, this isn’t about Kerrigan at all. This is about Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), whose ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) was charged as a co-conspirator in the attack, alongside Tonya’s unofficial bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). The film is presented as part-mockumentary whodunnit (where everyone knows who did it), part sketch comedy, part ESPN 30 for 30. It’s Blades of Unglory.I, Tonya follows our titular heroine (or anti-heroine) from the age of four, when she was forced to begin ice skating by her chain-smoking, abusive mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). Under coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya becomes one of the best skaters in the US. But her white-trash trailer park background holds her back, and she’s soon being discriminated against by snobbish judges all over the country. Things aren’t great for our Tonya at home, either. Beaten down by LaVona, she turns to Jeff, who in turn physically and emotionally abuses her.
The film is, by turns, funny, sentimental, outrageous and questionable. Questionable in terms of the unreliable narrators who carry us through the story, and questionable in its treatment (or non-treatment) of Nancy Kerrigan.
Nancy (Caitlin Carver) is very much a bit-part player in this tragi-comic tale; she’s not one of the main characters giving interviews to explain their sides of the story. The film’s style – mockumentary with a smattering of interviews and even to-camera asides – can occasionally feel jarring (although this fits with the unreliable, twisting narrative), and on occasion seems to detract from the simply phenomenal performances on show; as entertaining as the interview sequences are, the acting is so great that it seems a shame to have missed out on more conventional acted scenes.
Stan is excellent as shady Jeff, managing to help us understand his motivations as the same time as loathing him. Hauser brings comic relief to his villainous character, with his scenes with the FBI agents some of the funniest in the film. Janney is in fabulous scene-stealing form as the vile LaVona, a woman who unapologetically berates, abuses and destroys her daughter for the pursuit of what, really, is an unattainable dream.
Robbie gives the performance of her career as Tonya; she is furious, vulnerable, tenacious, vicious and redeemable all at once. She is the heroine, the villain, a femme fatale and a damsel in distress. She’s a victim, a survivor, an instigator, a bystander. There’s no doubt about it – Tonya Harding, at least the version presented in this film – is a simply fascinating character. But it’s quite difficult to get over the fact that this film is, largely, about the fact that another woman was attacked.
There is certainly an argument to be made that Nancy is, ironically, confined to the sidelines here. She’s not a narrative concern, and in many ways her story is simply a plot device to keep Tonya’s reel moving. But then again, the film isn’t called I, Nancy.
The film is presented as part-mockumentary whodunnit (where everyone knows who did it), part sketch comedy, part ESPN 30 for 30 – it’s Blades of Unglory
This is a film not just about Tonya’s skating career but about the media’s treatment of the working class and organised sports’ hypocrisy. It’s a film about a deeply flawed woman, who became a champion in spite of her beginnings and who was eventually destroyed by them.
Director Craig Gillespie hands much of the control of the narrative over to Tonya herself, which not only allows Robbie to deliver a tour de force performance, but allows the vilified figure of Tonya Harding in real life some dimension. The film is more engrossing the longer it goes on, and Gillespie does a marvellous job of blending narrative drama with mockumentary shots. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis gives a virtuoso performance that Tonya herself would be proud of. The film is vibrant throughout, and the ice skating routines are stunningly shot.
There’s no doubt that the real life story of Tonya and the attack on Nancy is endlessly fascinating, but this film’s strength is in portraying the nuances of Tonya’s character, for better or worse. Robbie’s performance is brash and bold, but also contains minutiae that sets it apart from other biopics we’ve sat through. Watch her face as she completes her famous triple-axel jump, or as she confronts a snobbish judge, or as she constructs a fictional bootlace issue; this is a masterpiece in character acting.
Yes, there have to be some ethical questions regarding Nancy Kerrigan’s role in this story. Yes, it’s very murky as to whether Nancy is a villain or victim. But the film’s satirical, humorous and irreverent tone throughout almost removes these questions from the viewer’s mind. Gillespie’s film is thoroughly enjoyable. The film’s apparently light-hearted approach to domestic abuse and assault is questionable, but the darkly comic tone throughout seems to position this as a satire. Indeed, if you hadn’t heard of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, you could easily believe this was a made-for-TV sensational drama.
The film never seems to decide one way or the other on Tonya’s complicity and villainy – that’s how it’s funny and a bit of a riotous watch. In that way, it’s like the woman herself: flawed, tenacious, one-of-a-kind, a force of nature. And sticks one hell of a landing.
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